BWW Review: A CHRISTMAS CAROL Upholds Tradition at The Milwaukee Rep
'Tis the season for The Milwaukee Repertory Theater's annual Christmas Carol, a show which turns up like clockwork at the end of November to delight audiences with its tried-and-true telling of the Dickens classic.
Now in its 44th year, this production is firmly rooted in tradition. Since its 2016 reenvisioning, there's been little in the way of new surprises, but that's what traditions are all about: passing down an experience and, hopefully, maintaining the integrity of that experience. Through its dedication to this holiday tradition, The Rep creates a Christmas Carol that feels like coming home -- warm and inviting, familiar and expected.
For anyone unfamiliar with the story, let's quickly sum up. The scene is Dickensian London at Christmastime -- that is, the Victorian era complete with cobblestone streets, men in tophats and tails, and women in sweeping gowns. On Christmas Eve, three spirits visit a miserly old money-lender, Ebenezer Scrooge, in an attempt to open his eyes to his avaricious ways and soften his heart in time for Christmas Day.
As Scrooge, Jonathan Wainwright is as good as ever, journeying from sneering to sympathetic to sweetly shifted in spirit. On opening night, a particularly-brilliant unscripted moment came in reaction to a ringing cell phone at the start of the show. Without skipping a beat or breaking character, Wainwright snapped, "Shall we wait while someone gets that." Well played, Ebenezer.
Given that the story is always the same, there's little new for Scrooge to do from one year to the next. From what I noticed, the biggest change came when our repentant villain is briefly taken six feet under alongside his spectral gravestone -- a spooky thing, as this Christmas Carol continues to lean into the idea that this is "a ghost story of Christmas." By and large, The Rep seems to ascribe to the adage that if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Seeing as he's always one to give wholly of himself on stage, Wainwright continues to deliver a compelling Scrooge.
Other notable returnees are the delightful duo of James Pickering and Angela Iannone as Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig, among other parts. These two light up the stage, especially Iannone who inspires scads of laughter. Reese Madigan and Rana Roman are back as Bob and Mrs. Cratchit, funny and wonderfully animated. Buoyant and boisterous, Todd Denning continues to leave his cheerful mark on the Ghost of Christmas Present. As the Ghost of Marley, booming-voiced Mark Corkins never disappoints.
Notable newbies this year are DiMonte Henning as Scrooge's amiable Nephew Fred and Tami Workentin as the Ghost of Christmas Past. Henning is jolly and vigorous in his defense of the spirit of Christmas, but at times it seemed his Dickensian accent slipped in and out.
Workentin is filling shoes last worn by Milwaukee favorite Deborah Staples. To those who know the local theater scene, those may seem like mighty shoes to fill. Myself? I enjoy and admire Workentin immensely as an actor and was thrilled to learn she was joining the Christmas Carol cast -- mostly because I was excited to see what fresh spin she might bring to the part. But whether due to script cues or direction, this Ghost of Christmas Past felt same-same-but-different.
Even with exciting new talent taking on these roles, one wonders if there will ever be real room for continued innovation in this Christmas Carol. Then again, do folks in the audience want innovation? Tradition means doing things a certain way, year in and year out. As far as Christmas is concerned, these traditions in particular are meant to make you feel warm and fuzzy, comforted and connected.
Between consistent performances, sets and costumes that feel plucked from a greeting card, stirring carols, wondrous in-theater snowflakes, and the gilded glory of the Pabst, The Rep's Christmas Carol continues to give Milwaukee the holiday tradition it craves. Though little has changed from Christmases past, The Rep upholds the same intention as a changed Ebenezer Scrooge: to "go out and spread good cheer."
Photo credit: Michael Brosilow