Review: A Holiday mix-up creates a delightful night at TheatreWorks New Milford

A holiday classic with a fun twist, 'What the Dickens?' takes the audience on a unique journey that is destined to delight and entertain!

By: Dec. 04, 2021
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When I was asked to review What the Dickens? at TheatreWorks New Milford, I entered expecting a fun twist on the old classic, A Christmas Carol. Upon taking my seat and confusingly flipping through my program, I was worried that perhaps I had misunderstood what I was getting myself into. Fortunately, I left the theater that evening satisfied that I had received exactly what was promised.

The lights dimmed and I was greeted with a familiar face: Director and performer, Matt Austin. This face, however, seemed embarrassed and immediately I understood what had happened. One brief apology later and the show was on its way! With a brilliant cast of Jenny Schuck, Billy Dempster, Jody Bayer, Bob Lussier, Gary Millar, and a special appearance by the stage manager, Delaney Dempster, the audience was drawn into the Christmas spirit in a production that delighted and entertained.

I needn't bore you with the plot of A Christmas Carol, it's a story that we all have heard time and again, so I will take this time to talk about the most important thing that a charming production such as this needs: Commitment. Not just from the cast, but from the crew as well. Most shows begin the moment you step in the theater, as the pre-show ambiance is just as important as the opening curtain, but in a show like this, the experience begins with the marketing. In a marketing plan reminiscent of The Play That Goes Wrong, the premise of this production hinges on every person playing their part: A part that I will proudly carry on. With such successful marketing and the disarming nature of Austin's opening remarks, the audience is all-in for the hilarity that ensues, and I'd be wont to ruin the experience for the rest of the production run. Needless to say, the entirety of TheatreWorks New Milford was committed to this production and that translated to a wildly successful night.

It's hard to speak of any individual actor's brilliance on stage when the cast was a true ensemble. From Scrooge's (Lussier) banter with the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come (Bayer, Schuck, and Bayer, respectively), to Billy Dempster's endless props and costumes; from Austin's helpful narration, to Millar asking Austin the questions that we're all thinking; and even their interactions with the audience from hecklers to random applause and everything in between (thanks for the shout-out, Austin), it's clear that this cast was involved in the creation of, dedicated to, and prepared for this adventure.

With such a stellar cast front and center, it can be easy to miss the other persons involved in the success of a show! Most notably, the double threat of Lief Smith as the lighting and set designer. The multi-layered set gave the cast room to move around and establish travelling, while also allowing physical gags as actors cut through the background to reach the opposite side of the stage: a gag made possible by the bare bones structure of Scrooge's house incomplete without walls so you can see the cityscape behind. Such a deep set creates another complication with lighting, as you need to fill all of these spaces with light, so the audience doesn't miss an ounce of action. To this degree, Smith made use of a simple design so that each portion of the stage can be lit independently without being a distraction.

Combining exquisite talent and commitment both on and off the stage with the inherent unpredictability of live theater- flubbed lines, late cues, the types of incidents that make live theater such a treat compared to the "perfection" of film- created an atmosphere of joyfulness and spontaneity indicative of the Christmas season and a heartwarming way to restart this reviewer's return to live theater after a long 21-month hiatus.