We laughed, we cried, we fashion policed: Edward Prostak (Scrooge) and David Errigo Jr. (Christmas Past). Photo by Scott Samplin © 2008
I've brushed off my black trousers and Ugly Christmas Sweater one last time to review a production at a Broadway-style dinner theater (yes, that's an oxymoron): the 1994 version of A Christmas Carol with songs by Lynn Ahrens and Alan Menken of Ragtime, Seussical, Aladdin, and Beauty and the Beast fame.
Blah blah blah, you may be thinking, but it's pretty important, with a show like this, to check out its pedigree in advance. Intellectual property law doesn't protect most works by long-dead folks like Charles Dickens, and that means anybody can (and does) create stage versions and, God help us, musicals based on them.
Just the other day, someone told me a horror story about watching The Gospel According to Scrooge at a friend's church. I did a bit of research and found out that since 1986, dozens of Assembly of God churches every year have presented The G According to S. Let a word to the wise suffice.
But this play, and Arizona Broadway Theatre's current production of it, is good. It's the kind of show that reminds you why it's important to go to live entertainment and share your experience with the rest of the audience. That magic doesn't happen at movies or on TV. And it's full of little surprises that keep the familiar old story fresh. They're so cool I have to keep them secret!
I can tell you about Paul Bridgeman's set design, which is a marvel of utility. Coincidentally, it takes the rotating and grayscale scenic elements of the last two shows reviewed in Curtains to their aesthetic and functional pinnacles. Specifically, this London looks appropriately dismal yet generically adaptable: In a Transformers-like dance, hinged pieces fold in and out, stairways come and go, and by the time Ebenezer Scrooge is tucked uneasily into bed, his chamber is revealed at the top of a central spinning tower that continues to serve as a clown car full of theatrical goodies.
Musically, the show features a live, excellent mini-orchestra -- hooray! -- fully competent singing, and a fine sound system (one of several things to like about ABT's venue, which I was visiting for the first time). The songs themselves are not showpieces for vocalists, and they may not be the script's strongest point, but they set up a couple of terrific production numbers. And before you say "Eeewww!", remember that Scrooge, in the course of the story, has four visions of ghosts, who take him everywhere from a rowdy Georgian-era rave-up to the creepy hellmouth of a cemetery. So a little tap-dancing and fanciful costuming are called for. Dickens, a put-butts-in-seats pragmatist if there ever was one, would approve.
The acting is uniformly good and is supported by amazing costume, makeup, and wig designs. (ABT does all this stuff professionally, locally, in-house, and they are justifiably proud of that.) I'm beginning to realize how much an appropriate "look" can help an actor flesh a character out, and this show is a lesson in that synergy.
My companions and I especially liked Adam Vargas, who takes the original Rabelaisian concept of Ghost of Christmas Present to a campy new level of hedonism and cheer. Physically, he towers over his Toylandesque hoofer minions, but his enthusiasm and vocal strength are the superpowers that really permit him to own the stage.
I agree, fervently and often, with our print critic, Robrt L. Pela, who notes that dinner theater can be fraught with peril for innocent playgoer and hardworking performer alike. Ten kinds of pie might get me to the far East Valley to see a musical, let's just say, but I won't necessarily be happy afterward. You can safely attend A Christmas Carol at ABT, though, and I recommend it as an awesome treat for you and your loved ones (with last-minute or after-Christmas shopping on steroids right around the corner at Arrowhead Towne Center and North Valley Power Center -- so watch out for weirdly heavy traffic).
ABT is not a buffet, so it feels pretty classy and you have more time to converse (whether that's an upside depends on the company you keep, of course). The menu choices are nicely prepared and presented and, we thought, a good value in the context of the overall event price and the quality of the show. Optional holiday-themed desserts make intermission fly by.
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I have learned that this musical, which was featured every Christmastime for a decade at New York's Madison Square Garden theater, was presented on TV in 2004 as an Emmy-winning special starring Kelsey Grammer, Jane Krakowski, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Jason Alexander, Jesse L. Martin, and Geraldine Chaplin. Several online comments report that it's a misguided NBC raping of what can be an entertaining show, and it reminds them of the tacky TV special produced by Bill Murray's character in Scrooged. (So if you saw that TV version and hated it, don't let that keep you away from the stage version, as they're apparently quite different.) Nevertheless, I'd like to see the TV special sometime. It sounds like something that -- like Olive, the Other Reindeer -- ought to be rerun more often. After all, we still get to see Rudolph's Shiny New Year.
"Let the stars in the sky remind us of man's compassion. Let us love 'til we die, and God bless us everyone." -- lyric by Lynn Ahrens, from A Christmas Carol
A Christmas Carol runs through December 28 at Arizona Broadway Theatre, 7701 West Paradise Lane in Peoria. Tickets range from $55.50 to $71.50 and include dinner, tea, coffee, show and tax. Call 623-776-8400 or click here to order. -- Julie Peterson