BWW Review: A CHRISTMAS CAROL - A GHOST STORY OF CHRISTMAS at Garden Theatre Loses Sight of Scrooge
The year was 1992, I was six years old, and the assignment was to draw a rabbit. I drew mine holding a microphone and labeled it "Bunny Raitt" - a play on Bonnie Raitt, the incomparable singer-songwriter topping the charts at the time.
28 years later, I'm still entirely too proud of that.
My art teacher was less impressed, I guess.
I came back from a bathroom break to find that she'd painted a big tree beside Bunny Raitt and covered her with falling leaves, completely pillaging the pun. When I cried, she started crying too, later confessing she didn't get the joke. I secretly suspected she just couldn't resist the urge to add her own touch... she'd done it to all the other kids too.
I thought about that art teacher this past weekend as I watched playwright Michael Wilson's take on A CHRISTMAS CAROL at the Garden Theatre in Winter Garden. He shares her affinity for adding a little extra that nobody asked for.
"A GHOST STORY OF CHRISTMAS." That's what he calls his rendition, borrowing from the formal and oft-forgotten subtitle for Dickens's novella. Sure enough, Wilson's wackadoodle reworking is all about the boo.
It opens with an extended dance sequence in which a gang of ghouls - not Marley & Co., just some random revenants - dance a circle around old Ebenezer Scrooge on the evening of December 23rd.
Scrooge gets haunted on two different nights, you ask? Doesn't that make Marley's arrival less impactful? Undermine the importance of his Christmas Eve encounters? Take the oomph out of his heart-swelling revelation at the end of the story that the spirits managed it all in one night and he hasn't missed Christmas after all?
Yes. Yes it does.
I suppose Wilson would say, "But maybe that was just a dream," which seems to be his answer to everything, because he's rewritten Dickens's entire story to suggest (rather heavy-handedly) that all the apparitions are just a figment of Scrooge's imagination after all. He might as well have called it A CHRISTMAS CAROL: UNDIGESTED BEEF.
Or maybe A CHRISTMAS CAROL: BUT REALLY THE WIZARD OF OZ.
Remember the 1939 movie musical where Dorothy meets the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion, but each bears a striking resemblance to someone she knows in real life, raising the question of whether she really went there at all?
Michael Wilson remembers that too.
He's turned all of Act I into a walk down the "yellow brick road" of London, where Scrooge meets three vendors who will resurface more translucently later that night. It's as eye-rolling as it sounds and even more boring than you can imagine. Heads were nodding all around me. Only my coffee kept mine upright.
Wilson's yuletide tinkering is unfortunate for any of us who know and love A Christmas Carol. But it was especially unfortunate for the friend who accompanied me to the show, a man who at the age of 27 had somehow never seen A Christmas Carol on stage or screen.
"Next time," I told him, "we'll watch The Muppets."
But no one is disserviced by the material quite so severely as the Garden's cast and crew, who might really shine in an adaptation that doesn't try so hard to be different (an all-too-common vice in Christmas Carol adaptations).
Bobbie Bell is a palatable Ebenezer. His Scrooge is stodgy but also funny when he needs to be, and Bell makes the most of Scrooge's long stretches as a silent sideliner during his trips to past, present, and future.
Alaric Frinzi has undeniable stage presence and star power, their turn as the Spirit of Christmas Past a highlight of the show. Jade Jones gets to sing for just a second, and we're left wanting to hear more of that voice. Meanwhile, Matthew Zenon is effectively mysterious as the Spirit of Christmas Future. And Janine Papin makes for a mighty Marley, somehow bringing a kind of Downton Abbey air to the character.
Stephen Lima's Bob Cratchit comes across as the most true-to-Dickens element on stage, but the script doesn't give him much to work with. Ditto the likeable Max Kelly's Fred.
The cast isn't the problem here, nor does the fault fall on anything the Garden team has done. On the contrary, the costumes are transporting, and the moving-parts stagecraft is impressive in its functionality. Director Jeremy Seghers has made an earnest effort to give Winter Garden the holiday magic it deserves.
To that end, just before the final curtain, the performers break the fourth wall and sing us a carol. It was the first tug on my heartstrings that night, and I was reminded that seeing a local production of A Christmas Carol is a quintessential part of the season - even if it's dead in the way Wilson didn't mean it to be.
A CHRISTMAS CAROL: A GHOST STORY OF CHRISTMAS runs at the Garden Theatre through December 22, 2019. Tickets are available at the theatre's official website, where you might decide to double down on the festivity and pick up tickets to their interactive screening of Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.
What did you think of A CHRISTMAS CAROL: A GHOST STORY OF CHRISTMAS at Garden Theatre? Let me know on Twitter @AaronWallace.
Photos by Patrick R. Murphy, courtesy of Garden Theatre