BWW Preview: MKE Rep's New A CHRISTMAS CAROL Shines Light and Love on Dickens' Dark London

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Photo Credit; Austin Bean

When Dickens wrote his timeless Christmas story about mid 19th century London audiences often push aside, especially at the holidays, he wanted his audiences to be transformed into seeing their world in a new way. In 2016, the Milwaukee Repertory Theater produces their 41st incarnation of Charles Dickens' beloved A Christmas Carol beginning on opening night, December 2. The historical Pabst Theater houses Dickens' story, first published in 1843, with a innovative adaptation conceived by Artistic Director Mark Clements and begins a journey with Ebenezer Scrooge into his past, present and future.

Dickens' novella has remained in print since its initial publication and he became one of the first authors to celebrate Christmas, the holiday traditions, in literature. Dickens wrote a tale inviting people to seek solutions for London's impoverished populations, especially children working in factories, and the social injustices he encountered in Britain during his lifetime. These cultural clashes appeared at the rise of the England's Industrial Revolution. In the mid-19th century, London teemed with homeless children and women, unemployed men, hungry people displaced from their normal lives and everyday work.

These historical facts set the scene for the MKE"s fresh adaptation written by Clements who wished to retell Dickens' story more directly from the original novella, which was originally titled; "A Christmas Carol in Prose: Being A Ghost Story of Christmas." The author created a ghost story for all generations to inspire the British public to be aware of these deplorable social conditions in London, specifically the city of Manchester which inspired Dickens when he stayed there several days to write his Carol.

An acclaimed theatrical technician for recreating Dickens' London for The Rep this year falls on Scenic Designer Todd Edward Ivins. This December Ivins will also be opening shows in Australia (Circus) and one on Broadway (The Illusionist: Turn of the Century). Yet, here in Milwaukee almost two years ago, Ivins again collaborated with Clements, similar to his first musical produced in the Quadracci Powerhouse, Cabaret.

Since that collaborative and ground breaking opening, Ivins has designed sets and/or costumes for Michael Pink's Milwaukee Ballet, (Mirror, Mirror and DorIan Gray) along with MKE Rep productions Ragtime and Dream Girls. Perhaps, more significantly, the sets he designed for Stephen Sondheim's Assassins, the musical that originally used a ring and revolve set design. Both Director Clements and Scenic Designer Ivins desired to contrast the dark, gritty London Dickens portrayed in his Christmas Carol with the light from the love in characters' lives that surrounded Scooge: Nephew Fred, the Cratchits and Tiny Tim through the the magic of Dickens' three ghosts, two which also light the way into Scrooge's heart.

In an interview with Ivins over the phone when he arrived in Milwaukee to put the finishing touches on these spectacular sets, the designer elaborates on these contrasts between the "maze of London buildings," 'the dirty, gritty streets," so Ivins will say the sets, "Eventually have Scrooge discover life and humanity in a rather depressing place."

To begin, Clements and Ivins envisioned a ring and revolve set design Ivins first used in Sondheim's Assassins produced at The Rep. The two concentric rings allow Scooge and the audiences to experience a journey through London while the rings move, or rotate, simultaneously as the action happens on stage. Ivins explains, "The quality of urban density comes through...moves the audience through the arc of Scrooge's transformation every step of the story."

"We [the Rep] wanted to stay true to the story-go every place Scrooge did-and tell the story told by Dickens. The ring and revolve keeps up with the narrative, almost similar to a film."

The ring and revolve stage design provides for almost 30 scenes by creating five distinct environments, and then changing pivotal props and lighting to create different atmospheres in the story. Since the Joseph Hanreddy/ Edward Morgan adaptation had been produced in the previous years, new technology became more affordable for regional theaters. Building the set design required "a small army" of technicians, all home grown here in Milwaukee, and Ivins concludes tech week for the 41st production, which as Ivins says, "Will give this Christmas Carol en entirely different point of view."

The point of view includes London windows that will light from behind, spectacular ghost entrances, a snowfall over the Pabst audience and Jacob Marley walking through a wall constructed of giant elastic bandages to confront the "bah humbug" Scrooge. These magical theatrical effects, a set both kinetic and sculptural for the audience, is an experience Ivins believes, "Will thoroughly warp up the audience in the love and humanity moments from A Christmas Carol."

A production named as one of the largest for The Rep, Clements approached Ivins and the team throughout the long process and continually decided, "They did not want to get into the way of the story. Let the story live and breathe--allow each piece of the story to be rewarded."

"Our goal is to be the best advocate for the story, " Ivins continues."Hone the story Dickens wrote." This particular production centers a dark and dreary London contrasted by the light in the emotions of the characters and Scrooge's transformation, and Ivins addresses the contrast when he says, "There's no light without darkness."

Ivins explains he attended one run through, and the production made him weep in reinventing the classic Carol.--a Christmas Carol that previously Milwaukee audiences embraced for years--"The previous production was a picture postcard vision of the Dickens story...this story will provide a new perspective, with an opportunity to experience new dimensions in Dickens' Scrooge.."

The designer joins Clements in that this fresh adaptation of A Christmas Carol may have appeared at exactly the right moment. When the world surrounding 2016 audiences might be often seen as smothered in an in explicable societal darkness, then the light shines brighter--light illuminating with clarity humanity's best moments.

In Dickens' tough and sometimes sordid London life, Fred and Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim, offer cheer and optimism, lead the way to better tomorrows. These characters illustrate each individual can be responsible for shining personal light in a dark world through personal or community life. Dickens expressed this in his Scrooge, who transformed his personal life into an illuminating persona--Scrooge's individual reality changed, which then transported those around him from darkness into his new light and then experience the light of kindness and joy in the human heart.

Ivins reiterates that, "There is no light without darkness--this Carol will catch up to the story putting the love in Scrooge's life and the production."

Catch the arc in Scrooges transformation this year, a light brilliant in the darkness of 1800's London-as everyone is the audience might be inspired to do when Milwaukee Rep's A Christmas Carol dazzles Milwaukee for the 41st season.

The Milwaukee Rep presents Dickens' A Christmas Carol in the historic Pabst Theater at the Patty and Jay Baker Theater Complex beginning December 2. For special events, performance schedule or to purchase tickets, please call: 414.224.9490 or visit

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From This Author Peggy Sue Dunigan