Review: SCROOGE! at Arizona Theatre Company

The show runs through December 30th at Tempe Center for the Arts.

By: Dec. 10, 2023
Review: SCROOGE! at Arizona Theatre Company

Telling it like it is! Guest Contributor David Appleford offers a candid perspective on Arizona Theatre Company’s holiday adaptation of SCROOGE! The show runs through December 30th at Tempe Center for the Arts.

After a month-long successful run in Tucson, where it was well-received by reviewers and audiences alike, the new Arizona Theatre Company musical production of SCROOGE! has now moved north to Tempe. It opened at ATC's new home, the Tempe Center For The Arts this past weekend where it will continue throughout the Christmas season until December 30th.

This newly developed production is based on the 1992 stage musical, which, in turn, was based on the Leslie Bricusse 1970 musical film with Albert Finney as Charles Dickens's most famous of literary characters, Ebenezer Scrooge. However, much has changed since those early days of the seasonal show, including the name. Taking its lead from Lionel Bart's Oliver!, the title has gone from Scrooge: The Musical to simply SCROOGE! with an exclamation point added. Considering that the 1970 film was studio-approved due to the success of Oliver! - many of the same film sets were re-used – finally adding that exclamation point brings the Dickens-inspired musical project to a full circle.

Those already familiar with the work as a live show may find themselves having to uncomfortably adjust to director Matt August’s new vision of the Bricusse musical. Instead of opening on a tableau of Victorian London, filled with vendors, children, and shoppers, where that atmospheric image of a Quality Street chocolate box suddenly comes to life, here four children in present-day clothing enter an otherwise dark, empty stage, each holding cellphones and taking selfies. 

The kids crowd around a small, toy theatre center stage until characters from the model itself emerge from the wings, taking their phones and integrating the youngsters into the story.  It’s as if the toy theatre has somehow magically opened up and supernaturally pulled them in.

What follows is the story of A Christmas Carol enacted as though staged within the proscenium arch of that model Victorian theatre, including the flat, intentionally colorless sets that slide on and off, designed by Jason Ardizzone-West, all resembling the look of a giant model toy theatre. Framing the production in such a way is an interesting idea until you realize that the whole show is going to look like this, though the flats act as a perfect screen upon which Paul Miller's effective scene-changing lighting design can project.

The cast then burst into the introductory choral, the wonderful A Christmas Carol, but even here changes occur that might make you adjust in your seat. The otherwise excellent six-piece orchestra, under the musical direction of Alan J. Plado, sounds too heavily electronic rather than orchestral, drowning the excellent voices of the ensemble. Plus, the song is interrupted (and never completed) by Shuler Hensley’s entrance in the street as the title character, Scrooge, who naturally brings all the seasonal proceedings to a halt by declaring at the top of his voice, “Bah.  Humbug!”

Hensley’s Scrooge is also something quite different. Instead of the miserly, elderly Dickens character, described by the author as a man physically affected by his age and his somber, miserable demeanor, where the winter cold "froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait, and made his eyes red, his lips blue," Hensley's miser appears as a strong, healthy, vigorously robust grump. There’s no old man with a hunched-over gait and a wiry chin here.

Perhaps the most disturbing and risky of creative differences that director August has developed for ATC are the ghosts that visit Scrooge and how their initial appearances are handled. Stewart Gregory's Ghost of Jacob Marley is less a white-powdered Victorian apparition weighed down by the enormous chains the ghost is doomed to wear for the rest of eternity, and more an ominous black specter, appearing as though he had risen up from an inky well with the liquid blackness still dripping from him. It’s a wonder Scrooge even recognized his old business partner.

Geoffrey F. Belliston's Ghost of Christmas Present appears nothing like the jolly Christmas Victorian version of Father Christmas, surrounded by the glittering greens and reds of the season. Instead, with flower vines springing from his costume, surrounded by a heavily prominent dose of yellow that surrounds him like large shards of spring-time lights reaching out, the ghost looks less seasonal and more like a Scandinavian King of the Marigolds.   

J Savage – who also takes on extra duties as both Associate Choreographer and Dance Captain – appears in the non-speaking role of the hooded Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come. Even here, there's an odd development with the dreaded apparition's appearance; instead of remaining a fully covered phantom of doom, for some reason, the ghost exposes what appears to look like an ineffective plastic-covered chest and abs. 

More successful is Karmine Alers' appearance as the Ghost of Christmas Past. The shimmering whiteness of Elizabeth Caitlin Ward's sparkling costume makes the character appear like a delicious version of a giant talking snowflake. What is genuinely odd, however, is how the exchange of dialog between Scrooge and the phantoms is handled.  For the most part, the ghosts remain motionless upstage while Scrooge looks directly out across the audience, never physically facing them. We see what he clearly sees, but instead, they're behind him. The exception is with the Ghost of Christmas Present as they duet the likably melodious, I Like Life.

The tuneful Leslie Bricusse score is expanded with ATC's new production. It was never the writer's best work when compared to previous shows, and the new additions will hardly resonate, but it's in the large-scale, energetically choreographed production sequences by Spencer Liff where the show shines, most notably the variety-hall-styled sing-a-long, Thank You Very Much, which was always Scrooge's cockney Knees-up Muvver Brown version of Oliver's Consider Yourself

The strength in the Bricusse telling of the Dickens classic is mostly in the finale sequence where Scrooge's redemption is fully realized. Like the film, the boisterous musical celebration that Scrooge shares with the entire cast as he sings and dances his way through London, reprising several of the score's more memorable songs, should warm even the most cynical of hearts. The strength in this newly realized Matt August production is with the large, upbeat, energetic ensemble, each of whom appears to be having the time of their life.

When the 1970 film opened, the marketing catchphrase asked, What The Dickens Have They Done To Scrooge? The answer was, of course, they made a musical. If the same question was used on the poster for this ATC production, the answer might be, Who's Dickens? While concentrating too hard on trying to make the show creatively different than any previous production of the Leslie Bricusse musical, the most notable element missing in this largely unsuccessful adaptation is any sense of a true Dickensian backdrop. Rent, borrow, or steal a copy of the 1970 film and you'll know what I mean.

Arizona Theatre Company ~®id=64& ~ Tempe Center for the Arts ~ 700 W. Rio Salado Parkway, Tempe, AZ ~ 833-282-7328

Photo credit to ATC