BWW Review: A CHRISTMAS CAROL at Open Stage Of Harrisburg
The 1843 Charles Dickens novel A Christmas Carol is a familiar tale. Each holiday season A Christmas Carol can be found in one of its over 130 adaptations on the screen or on the stage. As the stress of the holiday season grows, it is not unusual to hear someone utter the words made famous by Ebenezer Scrooge-Bah! Humbug! No matter what version of the classic tale we see, however, the story reminds us that the true spirit of the holiday season is one of compassion, kindness, forgiveness, charity, love, and hope. A Christmas Carol opened for the 19th year at Open Stage of Harrisburg on December 1st.
This adaptation of the story, created by Stuart Landon and Rachel Landon, evokes the tradition of ghost stories at Christmastime, taking the audience on an emotional journey with Scrooge as he comes to see the results of the life he has been living and to realize the ways in which he can impact his future and the future of those around him by learning from the past and living fully in the present. Open Stage of Harrisburg never fails to create an experience that engages the audience's imagination and senses. From perfectly timed lights and sound to special effects to period-specific costumes to carefully chosen and designed props and set pieces, this production of A Christmas Carol is no exception.
Costume and makeup designer Hanniel Sindelar deserves particular applause for their work on this show. Of special note are the amazing transformation of actor David Richwine into Marley and the costume design for the ghost of Christmas yet to come played by Jeff Wasileski. While the whole show is well-costumed, these two characters in particular display an astounding attention to detail-from the gray-white color of Marley's skin and costume to the ledger books and clocks hanging from his chains to the plague-doctor's beaked mask of the ghost of Christmas yet to come to his steampunk inspired gloves-the symbolism and overall impact of these costumes cannot be praised enough.
This attention to detail is evident throughout the performance, creating just the right amount of spookiness mixed in with hope and beauty. Indeed, the special effects employed in this show, including the bed that zooms around on stage, are worthy of a Broadway production. Not only is the entire production team clearly up to the task of crafting this experience for the audience, but they are matched in talent by the cast on stage. Many of the actors tackle numerous characters and demonstrate great agility in their ability to transform from one character into another.
Patty Cole is quite funny in her performance as the housekeeper/cook Mrs. Dilbert. In her first scene, through the use of precise and deliberate movements and facial expressions, the audience understands her relationship with Scrooge and her negative feelings toward him. Cole smoothly transforms into her other main role as the loving Mrs. Cratchit-seemingly the only thing that ties these two characters together is how they feel about Ebenezer Scrooge. Fletcher Smith and Rayne Houser join Cole as part of the Cratchit family, portraying Peter Cratchit and Martha Cratchit-the oldest of the Cratchit children. The scenes that highlight the Cratchit family are filled with emotion and come across to the audience as authentic and genuine. Smith positively glows when his family praises his character Peter for securing an apprenticeship, and the grief that Smith, Houser, and the rest of the actors display in the scene showing a future without Tiny Tim is heart-breaking.
Beate Drung-Sutton, Ian Wallace, Katherine Campbell, and Lisa Weitzman have the added task of performing as Zannis. Not only do they take on the roles of other characters throughout the show, but as Zannis, they have to rely on their physical acting, as they seldom speak and have masks covering their facial expressions. The actors do a wonderful job of "telling" a story through comedic pantomime and noises alone, which is not an easy task. However, while it is unique and interesting to include the Zanni (a clown-like character that originated as a comedic role in Italian theatre), their antics at the top of the show seem too long and drawn out and, for some audience members, may feel like an unnecessary distraction from the classic tale. The part the Zannis play within the show itself, however, fits well with the overall symbolism found throughout the performance and adds not only a sense of comedy to an otherwise spooky story but also a sense of mystery and anticipation, particularly as they herald the coming of the spirits and the start of Scrooge's new life on Christmas day.
Patrick Hughes and Kelly Strange have wonderful chemistry as Fred (Scrooge's nephew) and his wife Elizabeth as well as in the roles of Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig. Two of the most lively and endearing scenes of the show (a Christmas past at the Fezziwig household, showing a joyful and more carefree Scrooge, and a Christmas present with Fred and Elizabeth and their friends playing a question game while Scrooge plays along although he is invisible to them) feature these two actors prominently. Their stage presence and talent in these characters adds energy and a sense of joy to their scenes.
The OSHKids performance company was a pleasure to watch on stage. These actors include: Lauren Bell, Mackenzie Bowie, Cecelia Connolly, Lily Ferguson, Yasmina Ghani, Jonathan Hoover, Nate Howell, Alex King, Lauren Libhart, Olivia Nicotera, Molly McHugh, Scarlett Mink-Border, Summer Morris, Emaline Sutton, Gretchen Sutton, Justyce Tucker Nikolai Wagner, Dakota Walters, Keeley Welsh, Nyla Welsh, Anna Williams, and Ashley Wisner. One of the most well-orchestrated and funny scenes in the show is when the children come Christmas caroling to Scrooge's place of business and refuse to give up on spreading Christmas joy to this dismal man. The expressions on the faces of the young actors as they sing "Good King Wenceslas" fills the audience with the spirit of the holiday season, and as they continuously try to finish their carol after being removed from the premises several times, we are all reminded of how infectious the joy of the spirit of the season can be if you let it in.
When one thinks of A Christmas Carol, one naturally thinks first of the characters of Ebenezer Scrooge, Bob Cratchit, Marley, and the three Christmas spirits or ghosts. These characters are portrayed by Nicholas Hughes, David Richwine, Liz Curtis, Karen Ruch, and Jeff Wasileski, respectively.
One of the first truly spooky scenes in the show features David Richwine as the ghost of Jacob Marley, Scrooge's deceased partner. Richwine's posture and gait evoke the sense of a man weighed down by the mistakes he made in life. He appears as resigned to his fate as he paces around the room as he is desperate and impatient to impart his message to Scrooge, driving home the seriousness of Scrooge's situation through literally roaring his frustration and dire warnings. His Marley is a complete departure from his meek, mild, loving demeanor as Bob Cratchit, demonstrating Richwine's ability to take on a variety of roles like a chameleon.
Liz Curtis is endearing, as the bookseller Gracie Tenwick and Ghost of Christmas Past. Curtis's unassuming and slightly off-kilter Tenwick is so genuine and a little naive seeming that the audience can't help but be on her side as she asks Scrooge for more time to pay her debt to him. This almost childlike characteristic follows through beautifully into her character of the Ghost of Christmas Past. Unfortunately, in the performance on Saturday night, several of Curtis's Ghost of Christmas Past lines were delivered too quickly. Because of the distortion provided by the special sound effect they used on the ghost voices, her rapid delivery resulted in some of her lines being completely lost to the audience. Even though some of the lines were unfortunately not easy to understand, Curtis's acting in her demeanor and movements is perfect for the role.
Karen Ruch does not have the same issue in her role as the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the sound effect on her voice in that scene works quite well. In her dual roles as the cider-maker Pearl Brookton and the Ghost of Christmas Present, Ruch is a breath of fresh air in the midst of the spookiness of the show. She has a commanding presence on the stage that suits both characters. As the Ghost of Christmas Present, she is jovial and compassionate as she reminds Scrooge what the holiday season is all about. One of my favorite moments for Ruch is when she shows him images of a soldier, a woman in prison, and others less fortunate than Scrooge and helps him to see how even they hold onto the hope of the season. Her expression and movements hold an intensity that engages Scrooge and the audience, and she holds that intensity while reveling in the freedom of feelings of hope, love, and life.
Jeff Wasileski takes on the roles of Tillman Nightengale the apothecary and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. His Nightengale is just the right mix of genial showman and sly con artist as he sells his tonics and plays on people's fear of illness. Wasileski's interactions with the audience in his first Nightengale scene are entertaining and a great contrast to his interactions with Scrooge. While he has no lines as the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, and his costume covers his entire face and body, Wasileski captures the audience's attention through is body language, posture, measured steps, and ominously pointing finger. The tension he is able to create as he interacts with Scrooge in this scene is palpable.
Tying the whole production together is Nicholas Hughes in the part of Ebenezer Scrooge. The role is rife with emotion. Starting out as a cold-hearted, dispassionate and often irritated and put-upon man, Hughes deftly explores other emotions including fear, anger, concern, and finally compassion, joy, and love. It is easy to dislike Scrooge in the beginning because of how well Hughes schools his facial expressions to show a lack of interest in the well-fare of others and a cold, mercenary focus on his business. As his journey with the ghosts begins to soften his heart, to remind him of who he was, to show him who he's become, and to warn him about where he could end up, the audience journeys with Scrooge on this emotional roller coaster. The evolution Hughes shows in Scrooge's emotion is perfectly timed so as to not seem too abrupt for the audience, which lends a greater sense of reality to the arc of his character. The look of relief, compassion, and sheer joy evident on Hughes's face as Scrooge remembers how to connect with those around him creates that same joy in the audience.
Overall, this production of A Christmas Carol directed by Chris Gibson at Open Stage Harrisburg is an engaging, unique, and emotional experience for audiences. Take a break from the hustle and bustle to experience it for yourself. Visit www.openstagehbg.com/achristmascarol to get your tickets for A Christmas Carol.