BWW Review: DOLLY PARTON'S SMOKY MOUNTAIN CHRISTMAS CAROL: Bah, Humbug!
Dolly Parton's Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol
Based on the novel A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens; Adapted by David H. Bell, Paul T. Couch and Curt Wollan; Book by David H. Bell; Music & Lyrics by Dolly Parton; Directed by Curt Wollan; Music Direction, Orchestration, & Arrangements by Tim Hayden; Choreography by John Dietrich; Scenic Designer, Scott Davis; Costume Designer, Linda Roethke; Lighting Designer, Lee Fiskness; Sound Designer, James McCartney; Production Stage Manager, Laura Berrios
CAST (in alphabetical order): Jonathan Acorn, Josh Bryan, Billy Butler, Sachie Capitani, Peter Colburn, Brian Hull, Julia Getz, Ray O'Hare, Brittney Santoro, Ian Shain, Tader Shipley, Malachi Smith, Mary Tanner; BAND: Tim Hayden, Mark Burnett, Luke Easterling, Lindsey Miller, Caitlin Nicol-Thomas, Teddy Thomas
Performances through December 29, Produced and Presented by Red Tail Entertainment and Paul T. Couch at the Emerson Colonial Theatre, 106 Boylston Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 888-616-0272 or www.emersoncolonialtheatre.com
If the musical 9 to 5 captured lightning in a bottle, it can now be said that lightning does not strike twice, as acclaimed country singer-songwriter Dolly Parton's latest foray into musical theater generates about as much electric wattage as a trio of candles. Produced and presented by Red Tail Entertainment and Paul T. Couch, the world premiere of Dolly Parton's Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol did generate some excitement on its opening night at the Emerson Colonial Theatre when the diminutive star surprised the audience by prancing onto the stage wearing high black boots and a red elf-style costume. She embraced the crowd with her disarming, down-home charm before making her way to the center of the orchestra section to watch the show along with the rest of us.
With spirits and expectations elevated, we settled in for the David H. Bell, Paul T. Couch, and Curt Wollan adaptation of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, with book by Bell and music and lyrics by Parton. Instead of the original Victorian England setting, the story has crossed the pond to the depression era (1937) Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee, site of Parton's humble upbringing, and Ebenezer Scrooge (Peter Colburn) owns everything in a coal mining company town. The bones of the tale remain intact, with the miserly misanthrope receiving visits from his deceased partner Jacob Marley (Billy Butler) and three Christmas ghosts, in an attempt to show Scrooge the error of his ways. Bob Cratchit (Butler), his wife (Julia Getz), Tiny Tim (Sachie Capitani at this performance), and innumerable Cratchit children are along for the ride, as well as Scrooge's unsinkable nephew Fred (Jonathan Acorn), and various townspeople.
What the show has going for it in the plus column are the multi-tasking members of the ensemble, most of whom cover more than one role, and the onstage band, under music director/keyboardist Tim Hayden. Caitlin Nicol-Thomas (fiddle) gives a nice turn as the nonverbal Ghost of Christmas Future, standing atop the store counter, dressed head to toe in long black coat and hat, playing haunting strains on her electrified instrument. Mark Barnett (banjo, mandolin, dobro), Luke Easterling (bass), Lindsey Miller (guitar), and Teddy Thomas (percussion) get the opportunity to be in the forefront for a couple of the more rousing of Parton's tunes, and one wishes there were more of those hoedown numbers. However, on balance, the songs tilt toward sentimentality so that staging tends to be subdued (after all, it is the depression), but the occasional burst of body-slapping, percussive choreography (John Dietrich) is appreciated.
There's a surprising (to me) number of actors with Boston connections in the cast, including Emerson alums Acorn, Josh Bryan (Dick), and Getz, and local products Butler, Ray O'Hare (Mudge, Wyatt), Ian Shain (Ensemble, Swing), and both Capitani and Malachi Smith who alternate as Tiny Tim. Brittney Santoro (Fanny, Sadie) is making her Boston debut and wows with her vocals. Mary Tanner is a hoot in dual roles as Scrooge's housekeeper, Mrs. Dilber, and the Ghost of Christmas Past. Rounding out the company are Brian Hull (Mr. Fustbunch, Ghost of Christmas Present) and Tader Shipley (Ensemble, Swing). They comprise a tight ensemble and make beautiful harmonies together.
The world of the play is well-crafted with an evocative set (Scott Davis) and period costumes (Linda Roethke). Lighting designer Lee Fiskness and sound designer James McCartney enhance the atmosphere with a range of effects, although the sound quality for some of the actors' mics was uneven, and oftentimes the accents made them incomprehensible to me. Director Wollan makes good use of the open set design, suggesting changes of location and time as Scrooge travels around with his ghostly guides, and captures the flavor of the Smoky Mountains. However, he is unable to overcome the problems with the book, among them an overlong scene dealing with a strike by the miners, and a pervasive disconnect between the reality of the lives of the townspeople, who are poorer than dirt, and their congenial affect.
Dolly Parton's Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol delivers on the simplicity of its message of faith, family, and love, especially during the holiday season, and is a reflection of the heritage and values of its namesake. Even the Commonwealth of Massachusetts paid homage to the venture by issuing a proclamation (read onstage before the show started) that December 5, 2019, was declared Dolly Parton's Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol Day. Dolly is a national treasure whose talent has stood the test of time. This musical needs to be visited by some ghostly dramaturges to alter the shadows of its future.
Photo credit: Jesse Faatz Media (Company of Dolly Parton's Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol)