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Review: A CHRISTMAS CAROL at Hale Centre Theatre

Review: A CHRISTMAS CAROL at Hale Centre Theatre

The production runs through December 26th at Hale Centre Theatre in Gilbert AZ.

BroadwayWorld/Phoenix is again delighted to welcome David Appleford as a guest contributor to its pages - as always, featuring his distinctive, well-balanced, and intelligent perspective on theatre. In this case, he shines the Season's light on Hale Centre Theatre's production of A CHRISTMAS CAROL.

Here now - From the keyboard of David Appleford:

In several respects, when you enter Hale Centre Theatre's auditorium in Gilbert, the evening's entertainment begins before the play itself commences, and you become a part of it. Case in point: as it's Christmas at Hale, entering the theatre in December can feel like stepping into the middle of a theatrically designed Dickensian London; at least, the kind of Victorian-era London how we on this side of the Atlantic like to see the famous city portrayed at Christmas time.

Running now until December 26 is Hale Centre Theatre's 20th-anniversary presentation of the Charles Dickens ghostly classic, A CHRISTMAS CAROL. As this is theatre-in-the-round, entering through the main entrance brings you directly onto the stage. If you stop for just a moment before finding your seat and glance around, you'll notice how well the theatre has designed its seasonal look - tall, lighted window facades of several London business establishments such as The Pickwick Press envelop the walls - enabling an audience to feel as though it's right there in the center of the action, silent witnesses to what is about to unfold around them, not altogether unlike the spirits that surround all of us, as Jacob Marley will soon explain to Ebenezer Scrooge.

Director David Dietlein, the founder of Hale Centre Theatre in 2003, has directed every production of A CHRISTMAS CAROL since the theatre's opening. Now celebrating its 20th year, if there's one thing that stands head and shoulders above all else in Hale's hugely entertaining and faithful version of the Dickens novella is that this annual event is clearly a labor of love. Mr. Dietlein loves his Dickens, and it shows.

How the play compares to its initial run twenty years ago is difficult to say; you have to assume trial and error played a role in its continual development. But having seen the 2016 production and now revisited Hale for its current 2022 update, while adherence to the adapted script remains, certain directorial flourishes are occasionally tweaked, characterizations enhanced, and some effects altered.

With multiple performances daily from now until the day after Christmas - no Sunday presentations - ordinarily, this would be tiring for any experienced cast, but Hale Centre has two, separate, full ensembles performing on alternate days to cover the exhaustive schedule; the Green Cast and the Red Cast. Both versions of the play are identical in sound, sight, and direction, but they come with the obvious exception of having audiences see different faces portraying the same roles. This year, the Red Cast is led by family company member Tim Dietlein as the world's most famous penny-pinching miser, while the Green Cast is led by Rob Stuart. For this review, the production visited was performed by the accomplished Green Cast.

This is not a musical - characters don't express thoughts and feelings through song and dance - but there is plenty of music. This is best described as a play with music; a large group of seasonally costumed Dickens carolers assemble in the aisles and begin the evening with a medley of extremely well-sung songs once the town crier has wrung his bell and declared to one and all, "It's five o'clock and all is well!"

What works particularly well is how writer Ted Lehman has adapted the 1843 book. Much of the narration to either set the scene or further the plot - here expressed by individual members of the strolling carolers from the aisles - is verbatim from the book, yet the script is never dry. There's a surprisingly genuine feel to Dickens throughout, particularly in the second half where the hooded Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come silently appears and ominously points its lengthy finger like a vengeful specter, indicating what unpleasant sights it wants Scrooge to see. The book goes decidedly dark once the Ghost of Christmas Present exposes want and ignorance in the form of two, impoverished children, and while several productions of this Christmas classic either try to lighten the mood or change some of the future scenes for a less serious approach at this point in the story, Hale's production never shies away from those gloomy elements. Characters from London's underbelly emerge, stealing sheets from a dead man's bed, including the bed curtains, rings 'n all, then selling them for a few pennies to the shadowy Old Joe.

Also included are the three London businessmen, here portrayed as upper-class twits in top hats reading their copy of The Times, highly amused at their own insensitive, gossipy comments. Each talk of Ol' Scratch's death - a Victorian nickname for the devil - and wonder if they'll bother going to his funeral; perhaps if there's food. Particularly inventive is the sight of Scrooge walking across a graveyard while cast members lie motionless on the floor as if buried below, each holding their gravestone upright while fog swirls around them completing the eerie effect and looking like a scene out of a UK Hammer Horror movie.

But it's the moment of redemption we wait for, and when it comes it is so thoroughly pleasing. Watching Rob Stuart's change of heart materialize with a giddy delight is priceless. There's a fresh feeling of true, seasonal joy as Scrooge, now drunk on his happiness in a way he could never before imagine, accepts that invitation for Christmas dinner with his nephew, Fred.

Performing and directing a play presented in the round will always be a challenge, particularly when you consider that at all times an actor needs to be seen and heard by all four sides of the house. Certain shows simply don't lend themselves to a round interpretation, yet, with A CHRISTMAS CAROL, director Dietlien has crafted a winning formula. A first visit to this production in 2016 by yours truly proved to be a highlight of that year, an unexpected treat so impressive that wanting to see it again felt practically mandatory. With an equally large and fully accomplished cast, Hale Centre Theatre's current 2022 production is everything recalled from previous years.

Knowing the Victorian author's love for both the season and live theatre, I'm quite certain Charles Dickens would have approved of Hale and what the theatre has done with his haunting fairy tale had he been there. And in a way, he is. Look closely at the framed portrait hanging above Scrooge's fireplace in the raised, northwest corner bedroom set, possessing a clear view of everything unfolding in the house. Why, upon my soul; it's Mr. Dickens.

A CHRISTMAS CAROL runs through December 26th at:

Hale Centre Theatre - 50 W. Page Avenue, Gilbert, AZ - 480-497-1181 -®id=64&

Photo of Tim Dietlein - credit to Nick Woodward-Shaw

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