BWW Review: A CHRISTMAS CAROL EXPERIENCE at Fairfield Center Stage
On Sunday, December 22, I had the pleasure of seeing Fairfield Center Stage present A CHRISTMAS CAROL EXPERIENCE, for the second year in a row. I have been raving about last year's performance, all year long, and am delighted to say that Fairfield Center Stage has successfully repeated the groundbreaking excellence that I experienced for the first time, exactly one year ago, on December 22 of 2018. In my youth, I have appeared in three stage productions of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. I have seen numerous movie versions, whether animated or otherwise. I have also seen it on stage. Fairfield Center Stage, however, has found a brilliantly unique new way of presenting this timeless classic story, while staying true to the original. In A CHRISTMAS CAROL EXPERIENCE, the audience of about twenty-five people moves from room to room in Fairfield's Burr Mansion, following Ebenezer Scrooge and the other characters, ending up outside the mansion for the final scenes that include the added special effects of smoke by the grave and artificial snow falling upon us. I am convinced that the absolute best live performance of this timeless story that has impacted generations, internationally, is this one performed by Fairfield Center Stage. This is a wonderful experience all-around!
Executive Producer Eli Newsom; Director and Artistic Director Christy McIntosh-Newsom; Original Scenic Designer Perry Liu; Musical Director, arranger, and composer of new music and lyrics Clay Zambo; Choreographer Lindsay Johnson; Costume Designer Jessica Camarero; Stage Managers Nick Carrano & David Katz; and Technical Supervisor Virgil Watson combine their skills and efforts with a stellar cast that has clearly worked hard to bring the audience a stand-out first-rate theatrical experience!
Upon arriving at the mansion, hot cider and Figgy Pudding are offered free of charge to the patrons, while talented carol singers (Benjamin Brennan, Marnie Kruse, Ken Skleveland, Krista Watson, and Sana "Prince" Sarr) sing Christmas songs, including with some new and comical lyrics.
Led by the incredibly talented Robert Alexander, who later also plays the Ghost of Christmas Future, the audience is given a humorous introduction to the show, along with a clear and amusing explanation of the forthcoming process and regulations.
The audience then walks into a long hallway, initially seeing and hearing the carol singers singing a haunting melody, accompanied by the haunting live solo violin of McNeil Johnston, towards the back of the visible portion of the hallway. Young ghost guides Emily Seanor and Genevieve Seanor come forward from the back of the hallway, helping set a tone that again brings the words, "Play with us, Danny, forever," to my mind. Emily and Genevieve are soon joined by the other two ghost guides, Josh Cardozo and Johanna Jackson. The four ghost guides skillfully perform a choreographed dance number to the original music before silently leading the audience into the next room.
Throughout the show, the four ghost guides show incredible crowd control skills. Without speaking any words to the audience, they remarkably use gestures to effectively lead the audience from room to room, while getting every audience member to stand in such a way that every audience member has a clear view in every room, regardless of our differing heights, without anyone ever feeling cramped or crowded. During these transitions, the solo violin plays, and the ghost guides sometimes sing "oo" along with the melodies, maintaining the haunting feeling throughout the show. The ghost guides also provide some deliberately eerie echo whispers during the Jacob Marley scene, and other vocal sound effects that also enhance the quality of the production. These four cast members show extreme talent, making the most of these ghost guide roles that are unique to this Fairfield Center Stage production.
The audience is introduced to the central protagonist, Ebenezer Scrooge, in the first room the ghost guides have led us to, Scrooge's place of work. Scrooge is a miserable person, penny-pinching and unkind to his employee, Bob Cratchit, yet, like all living people, Scrooge always retains the potential for redemption. Steve Benko does a fine job in this leading role of Ebenezer Scrooge.
Bob Cratchit is excellently played by Bill Warncke. Bob Cratchit displays an inspirational loving attitude. He is kind to all people, regardless of how others treat him, and is grateful for all he has, regardless of how little that may be. He leads his children by example, living their Christian faith without letting the pessimism or antagonism of others ruin his joy. Even in his financial poverty, he remains undeniably rich in love.
Garth West is great as Scrooge's nephew, Fred, a character who, like Bob Cratchit, reflects a joyful and positive attitude, even when met with opposition. Fred's Christmas cheer and cordial invitation to Christmas dinner are rejected by Scrooge, but Fred keeps his uplifting and hopeful outlook, nevertheless.
Scrooge is so bothered by the words, "Merry Christmas," that he wishes painful death ("boiled in his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart") upon all who say "Merry Christmas." I absolutely love the way this story inspires us to still respond with a genuinely loving heart towards people who share Scrooge's attitude towards "Merry Christmas," as I firmly believe that by God's grace, radiating such authentic peace, love, and joy can help transform even the most hateful of hearts.
Virgil Watson and Danielle Testori-Gartner are a talented duo, playing solicitors who find that Scrooge also seems to wish death upon many of the poor and downtrodden, "If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population." Scrooge failed to see the divinely ordained inherent value and equal human dignity shared by all members of the human family. Scrooge's crooked worldview can and must be changed, as Scrooge would soon find out.
The audience is soon led from Scrooge's workplace, to his bedroom, where Scrooge soon encounters the ghost of his late business partner, Jacob Marley, who is strongly portrayed by Peter Haynes. Jacob Marley is a doomed apparition in chains, who during his life on Earth had shared Scrooge's selfish worldview, but now warns Scrooge to change his ways, so Scrooge can avoid suffering that same tormented eternity with Jacob Marley.
After Jacob Marley goes away, the first of the spirits appears. Sana "Prince" Sarr has a flawless British accent in his role as the Ghost of Christmas Past. The audience is soon led to the upstairs room of the mansion, to visit Scrooge's past.
One of the many wonderful aspects of Fairfield Center Stage is that the extremely young cast members genuinely sell their roles. We see this at this point in the show with Rita Watson and Ainsley Novin who play Boy Scrooge and Fan, respectively. We will later see this with Suraya Noonan as Tiny Tim, and with Emery Holden and CJ Newsom who play Want and Ignorance respectively. Later still we see this with Nikki Adorante who plays the boy who was asked to buy the turkey.
Fezziwig's party becomes an exciting moment when audience members can choose to participate on the dance floor, feeling as if we are genuinely present at Fezziwig's party and not merely watching from the outside. Kellen Schult shines as Fezziwig, radiating the positive charismatic energy that Fezziwig brought to those around him. In all the versions of this story I have seen, this is the first that I can recall Scrooge verbalizing that the way Fezziwig made people feel is far superior to anything that money can buy. This is an inspirational positive insight. Lindsey Reuter, Olivia Desy, and Patrick McMenamey add to the joyful feeling of this scene in their respective roles of Mrs. Fezziwig, Miss Fezziwig, and Dick Wilkins, respectively.
The joyful scene is soon contrasted, in the next room, by a deliberately heartbreaking scene, conveyed in a genuinely moving way, with an emotionally powerful performance by Bella Caponi as Belle. Belle painstakingly breaks off her engagement to Young Scrooge, feeling that he has changed from the man who loved her, to someone who places the desire for wealth ahead of his love for her. As Young Scrooge, Jim Keller's reaction to this unwanted break-up makes the audience genuinely feel for both Young Scrooge and Belle. Reliving this trauma, Scrooge tells his younger self to run after Belle, but he can not change what has happened in the past. An excellent new feature to this year's production (or perhaps something I somehow missed last year) is that Sana "Prince" Sarr is projected in spirit form, outside Scrooge's window, towards the end of this scene. This is an incredibly amazing special effect!
During the Ghost of Christmas Present scenes, in addition to the aforementioned cast members, we see great performances from Matthew Casey, Brittany McVey, Emma Portnay, Nick Carrano, Anne Collin, Nicholas Ferreira, Nora Watson, and Ainsley Dahlstrom in the roles of the Ghost of Christmas Present, Lily, Lily's Sister, Topper, Mrs. Cratchit, Peter Cratchit, Martha Cratchit, and Belinda Cratchit, respectively.
Kelley Wright and James Hisey round out this stellar cast with convincing performances in the roles of Mrs. Dilber (the maid) and Old Joe (who makes deals with Scrooge's belongings), respectively.
I highly recommend A CHRISTMAS CAROL EXPERIENCE which Fairfield Center Stage and Fairfield Museum scheduled to continue to run through December 29, 2019, at Burr Mansion in Fairfield, CT. I thoroughly enjoyed this show and continue to look forward to future productions by this highly entertaining and innovative Fairfield Center Stage theater group. For more information on this show, including times and tickets, and their future productions, please visit the Fairfield Center Stage website at https://www.fairfieldcenterstage.org/. Merry Christmas, and in the words of Tiny Tim, "God bless us, everyone!"