It's time for Christmas shows! Nearly Naked's Times Square Angel, Arizona Broadway Theatre's A Christmas Carol, and Theater Works' Miracle on 34th Street are all back with many of the same cast, designers, and directors as last year. (Check with each company for this year's dates and times.) Fred Bornhoeft, who was reprising his role as Kris Kringle in 34th Street, has dropped out to undergo heart surgery. We wish him a speedy recovery, and we have a feeling David Vining will do a jolly job filling in.
Meanwhile, we'll bring you reviews of stuff we didn't see last year -- there's plenty to go around. The Hale Centre Theatre chain has been presenting their own Dickens-based version of A Christmas Carol for 44 years (for the past seven, at their theater here in Gilbert). Aside from a few pitfalls, it's a faithful, hall-bedecked, heartwarming rendition of the world's most redemptive ghost story.
My inner child was delighted, as usual, by how close to the action I found myself when performers scurried up and down the aisle staircases, using them not just as routes to enter or exit but also as playing areas. (I happened to be sitting right by Scrooge's front door when the knocker turned into the late Jacob Marley's face.)
But my inner literature fanatic was pouty, because loud, recorded underscoring and rapid-fire, heedless diction destroyed my enjoyment of much of the beautiful, clever, and amusing original dialogue and narration. Another patron that same night complained of the sound problem on director/producer David Dietlein's blog, and he promised to look into it. I'm not sure whether there's been time to fix the actors' engagement with the text, though, which felt, often, like that of an amateur Shakespearean troupe just trying to get all the words out.
Musically, my favorite parts were when the ensemble breaks out into plain old caroling, sometimes for its own sake and sometimes as a musical number. (They continue singing outdoors as the audience departs after the show, luckily all bundled up in their cozy costumes, while fake snow falls gently from the theater's roof and photo ops abound. It's really pretty neat.)
My least favorite parts were the addition of what I call New Bad Songs to a perfectly good play (in this case, said NBSs were few and brief, at least) and the realization that the Hale's smallish stage-in-the-round poses a sometimes insurmountable choreographic challenge. People don't usually carry tombstones around in their hands like chorus boys with straw hats, right? But they did, here, and it was odd, and it also happened while they were singing the lovely hymn "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel."
I found the overall pace of the show a bit draggy, and between that and the inherent scariness of some of the ghost scenes (especially in a house this compact), you might want to think about how young a child you'd want to bring to this production. There is plenty of fun and good cheer, though, and any little one who's familiar with the story should be just fine.
Brad Alger and David Dietlein's set design makes the walls behind the four seating sections into charming sections of London skyline. Each cutout window was illuminated a bit more ominously red than I'd like, but it was a good use of what is often wasted visual space at the Hale, as well as making up for the arena-style venue's inherent inability to support traditional backdrops or tall scenic elements.
A Christmas Carol continues through Wednesday, December 23, Hale Centre Theatre, 50 West Page Avenue in downtown Gilbert. Tickets are $20 to $25 and they're going really fast; order here or call 480-497-1181.