BWW Review: Pollard Theatre Brings A TERRITORIAL CHRISTMAS CAROL Back for 30th Year
To say that Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol has become part of the very fabric of how we celebrate the season would be an understatement. This beloved work goes beyond just being a yearly tradition, as it is read, watched and heard in various forms by millions every year during the month of December. Speaking theatrically, there have been numerous stage versions, both musicals and straight dramas, and countless theater companies do the show every year as an annual holiday tradition. Anywhere you live in the country, there is at least one theater doing it during the holidays at least one theater that has a production known for being the region's big, must-see holiday event.
Our part of the country is no different, as there are a few different productions of A Christmas Carol running this month, including some that have been ongoing for some time. In Guthrie, A Territorial Christmas Carol has been an annual family traditions for thirty years. As with many versions of the story, this one adapts it for a different time period, taking it out of Dickensian England and placing it at another moment in history. In keeping with Guthrie's proud history, that moment is the time when Oklahoma was at its youngest, not long after the land run of 1889, when Guthrie was the capital of the new territory, years before it would become a state.
Unlike some theaters, who give the story a different twist or adaptation every few years, Pollard has kept this territorial setting throughout, making it part of what has become one of Guthrie's great holiday traditions. Stephen P. Scott wrote the adaptation, which sets up the framing device nicely right at the start. Ben Moody, along with his wife Liz and son William, have recently settled in the Cherokee Strip, in 1893. They find themselves alone on Christmas, now far from their other friends and relatives. Shortly after we meet them, they are joined by a scout named John, a travelling teacher named Hamilton and a stranger, a writer, named Charlie (is it THAT Charlie? We assume so, although he denies it when asked if he's Charles Dickens). When Charlie offers to tell the group a story, the stage transforms to territorial Guthrie and the characters all turn into Dickens' characters from his familiar tale.
There's real fun in this production in that it tells that familiar tale in a way that's just different enough to be not so familiar. Scott has changed the language a bit, of course, to take it out of England and place it in the early United States of America. There are many lines taken directly from the book, of course, still instantly recognizable, but other lines have been tweaked or changed just enough to make them fresh and new sounding to someone who has seen or read the story numerous times. There's also fun in some of the details of the plot and setting that have changed. Scrooge and Marley's business is now real estate, buying and selling land claims. Scrooge's evening meal is biscuits and gravy rather than a bowl of gruel. It adds authenticity to the setting and a nice change of pace to the story.
As with any of the countless adaptations, Scott's version tends to focus on or emphasize certain moments while downplaying or diminishing others. Part of it may have been due to the addition of the territorial framing scenes at the beginning and end. Some stuff just had to be cut down, one might assume. The scenes in the present are surprisingly short, with the Cratchit family getting very short shrift. Oddly, Tiny Tim is almost nonexistent in this version, almost an afterthought. On the other hand, the scene in the future with everyone pawning Scrooge's belongings is given a lengthy, fully developed scene. There are moments throughout when Scott emphasizes certain moments while glancing over others, which is bound to leave some audience members disappointed.
Similarly, W. Jerome Stevenson's direction, while mostly good, is also uneven across the production. There are moments with the appropriate emotion and drama, like Scrooge's speech by his tombstone, but other moments that call for emotion and drama have none at all, such as Belle's speech to Scrooge when she leaves him and Mrs. Cratchit's speech about Scrooge at the family's Christmas dinner. Stevenson keeps things very light and lively throughout, which can be either good or bad depending on your tastes. While the show is undeniably fun and joyous at times, at other times it can feel a bit shallow, only skirting the surface of the story and its characters.
Of course, any production of this show rests largely on the shoulders of its Ebenezer Scrooge, and James Ong is wonderful in the role, one which he is playing for the last time, according to recent news reports. Ong tips the scales masterfully between the beginning and ending of Scrooge's journey. He's a very real menacing, hateful and nasty curmudgeon at the beginning and just as real as an overjoyed, delirious and giddy new man at the end. While he's convincing, he's also a lot of fun to watch, which is important, since his story or journey is one that most every audience member is going to know already. He brings to that journey a lot of charisma and presence, and some real heights of emotion.
The rest of the adult ensemble have returned for this year's production and all play at least two roles. James A. Hughes brings both comic energy and emotional depth to the roles of Mr. Fezziwig and Bob Cratchit, respectively. Hughes has a great expressiveness about him and lots of energy and charisma. It's a shame Bob Cratchit doesn't get a bit more to do. As Mrs. Cratchit and others, Megan Montgomery is good but, as mentioned, Mrs. Cratchit is too downplayed here. It would be nice to see Montgomery get more to sink her teeth into what that role. She is a lot of fun as Mrs. Dilber, though. Pollard favorite Jared Blount plays a number of characters, including Ghost of Christmas Present, which is his weakest of the bunch. It's a really strange choice for the Ghost, in terms of characterization, voice and attitude, not the big, larger than life, stage-dominating Ghost some may expect. In the smaller character roles, though, Blount is as charming, charismatic and full of personality as he always is.
Timothy Stewart plays two roles but the major one is Charlie, who serves as our narrator as he tells the tale to young William Moody. Stewart is an excellent, charismatic narrator and also has a few nice moments as a guest at the Christmas party of Scrooge's nephew. Trinity Goodwin portrays the Ghost of Christmas Past in another departure from what most may be used to. This Ghost is vaguely Native American (the costume implies that she is but nothing else does) and Goodwin's performance is very ethereal and vague, which is likely on purpose and doesn't always work. She does bring some nice energy to her other roles and has a few great moments. Always bringing the energy is Joshua McGowen, who does so again here as Scrooge's Nephew and Young Scrooge. McGowen is always a pleasure to watch and it's no different here. Emily FrancisA. Brown portrays two of the major female characters, Niece and Belle, to uneven results, primarily because it would be nice to see her do so much more with Belle than she does, or is directed to do. Ellie Valdez gets even less to do, although she brings a nice touch to Widow Brown, a woman who approaches Scrooge for help with her land claim.
Rounding out the adult cast is Dakota Muckelrath as Jacob Marley and two other characters. He does a nice job of making the two non-ghost characters each a bit different and his Marley is unique and fun. It's one of the most menacing and frightening Marley's this reviewer has ever seen on stage and it's very entertaining. It gives the impression that Marley isn't necessarily a benevolent spirit or there to really help his old friend. Of course, the show also has a youth cast, and in this case there are two casts who will perform on alternating nights. All of the children seen on the show's second night on Saturday were adorable and a lot of fun to watch. The youngest Cratchit daughter is a wonderful scene stealer (in a good way) and is excellent during the future scene after Tiny Tim's death.
Gary May's scenic design does a nice job of creating the territorial setting in a way that's simple and not overwhelming. His use of revolves also provides some nice transitions into and out of the story's many scenes. The costumes by Michael James are uniformly good and appropriate, except perhaps for the very strange robe worn by Ghost of Christmas Present. W. Jerome's Stevenson's lighting design is also good, providing some nice mood and setting but there are some video projections that really could just be left out. Overall, the production value seems low compared to recent shows at the Pollard, but that may be due to the repeated use of the same technical elements over this show's long run.
There is still much to enjoy in the Pollard's annual holiday tradition. It is a version of A Christmas Carol that is totally unique and that alone makes is worth seeing for anyone who loves Dickens' timeless tale. It maintains the joy and fun of the story and provides an evening of entertainment perfect for this time of year.
Tickets for A Territorial Christmas Carol are $30, with discounts for seniors, military, students and educators. Performances are November 24th through December 23rd; Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm, with 2:00 pm Saturday and Sunday matinees, beginning December 2nd. Five 11 am matinees are available for school groups only. Tickets are available online at tickets.thepollard.org, by phone at (405) 282-2800, or at the Pollard Theater Box Office at 120 W. Harrison Ave., Guthrie, OK.
Pictured: James Ong.