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Review: Socially contemplative A CHRISTMAS CAROL IN HARLEM at The Classical Theatre Of Harlem

Review: Socially contemplative A CHRISTMAS CAROL IN HARLEM at The Classical Theatre Of Harlem A close friend recently told me there was no cure for climate change. Too many people are on the planet. He theorized the solution was to eliminate two-thirds of the world's population. Ebenezer Scrooge also shares the same sentiment. If the sick and downtrodden cannot survive then they will help "decrease the surplus population." A Christmas Carol in Harlem updates Charles Dickens' classic novella into modern times with a socially contemplative spin.

Charles Bernard Murray is a miserable Scrooge and that is a compliment. He is a landlord who boasts "tis the season to pay rent." A social worker Sierra Jones (Ure Egbuho) pleads with him to not raise rents so high that people are forced out of their homes. "There's welfare for that," Scrooge replies. "Many are not faring well," she counters. The rallying cry is bluntly delivered. "Harlem, are you tired of the increasing number of empty store fronts?" This story is localized and laser beam focused on its neighborhood.

Scrooge is a classic miser. For him, Christmas is about wasting money from online sales to throw away trees. He tells Ms. Jones that he always follows the law when charging tenants. Her well-written response: "laws by design make fairness elusive." Many topical points are raised in this story to bring themes from the Victorian era into present day Harlem.

The structure of Dickens' story is followed from the Cratchit family's financial woes to the ghost visitations. Eryn Barnes acrobatically performs the Ghost of Christmas Past. Her enjoyable take on the role is limber, casually stylish and unique. This section of A Christmas Carol in Harlem is a high point. Scrooge revisits his old workplace, a packing and shipping facility. A rousing ensemble number singing "underneath the mistletoe" is fun. This is one of many moments that Alan C. Edwards' lighting design is used to excellent effect.

The staging of this musical is filled with visual treats from costumes (Lex Liang and Margaret Goldrainer) to varied entrances and exits. The set design (Izmir Ickbal) is a clever set of boxes with window cutouts to represent city buildings. They will shuffle around as the story requires and also hold props. The projections (Maxwell Bowman) nicely enhance the simple settings. The playground fence with a hole in it was wholly recognizable.

Director Carl Cofield and Choreographer Tiffany Rea-Fisher have inserted interesting transitions using their ensemble to represent the hustle and bustle of a city. The scene change between the office and the clock store was especially good and led to a very funny cameo by Angela Polite as the Clock Shop Lady.

Not every moment in this show is at that same level. The more serious sections slow momentum until the next bit of sparkle arrives. This musical is clearly a family entertainment. Playwright Shawn René Graham has written this version to be locally focused and easily relatable to its target audience. A few social concern points, however, come across as messages delivered by standing on a soapbox rather than through organic dialogue.

What is particularly rewarding about this take on the parsimonious Scrooge are the bigger picture lessons which this theater company is passionate about communicating. Harlem used to be a cultural mecca as exemplified by the past glories of the Lenox Lounge and the Savoy. There is an urgent plea to make arts thrive again in this community to enrich the neighborhood and, by extension, reflect its people and their lives.

The overarching theme of A Christmas Carol in Harlem is to keep the holiday spirit alive throughout the year. Worldwide problems like climate change and income inequality can seem daunting and unsolvable. This musical beautifully presents an alternative to giving up. Every person can make a difference. Start by taking care of one child at a time followed by one family. Incremental steps will lead to taking care of one building at a time and then one block at a time. That is the recommended prescription to bringing joy back to a neighborhood. Isn't that the true meaning of Christmas?

A Christmas Carol in Harlem is playing through December 21, 2019 in Aaron Davis Hall at City College.



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From This Author - Joe Lombardi