This is doubly so–perhaps triply–for Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Published in 1843, it was the story that launched Dickens into the pantheon of Great Writers, both critically and popularly. It is a solid story; 150 years of adaptations, tributes and not-necessarily-Christmas-related parodies attest to that.
So the question, of course, becomes how to keep the familiar surprising, in a way.
Here enters a crack Broadway team–composer Alan Menken, librettist Lynn Ahrens, and director/co-bookwriter Mike Ockrent–that put their Carol in Madison Square Garden in 1994 and for several years after, and did great business each time. It probably needn’t be mentioned that the theater at Madison Square Garden can seat more than 5,000: A space made for pure spectacle.
So, should a company of more modest means choose to mount this show, is intimacy down for the count?
Not necessarily. As stated, the story is solid, affecting and even necessary for a season that calls for charity as much as abundance, as the Ghost of Christmas Present sings. And there is homespun artistry and magic to be had at the Quest Theatre Ensemble’s space on Chicago’s Gregory Street.
But there is a certain fleetness to the storytelling that betrays the musical’s sizable play-to-the-back-row origins. This is to say, moments that ought to land and sink in–namely, Scrooge’s growing disdain for the holiday and how it came to affect everyone around him–instead feel like connective tissue between the hearty song and dance.
And there is a lot of hearty song in a near sung-through 90 minutes. The music is pleasant and primarily motif-driven, with a penchant for light disarming humor befitting Menken, and neatly complimented by Ahrens’s lyrics. Alas, on press night, there was a persistent microphone issue that distracted from the musical’s merits and made it that much more difficult to fully succumb.
All the more worse because the microphone belonged to Scrooge himself (Kent Joseph), who rarely left the stage and couldn’t get it fixed. It was especially upsetting because Joseph was easily the most arresting figure onstage. Impressively tall with befitting muttonchops, and in possession of a lush bass voice, he also avoided playing the gargoyle, seeming instead to actively resist the season, which made his change of heart more cathartic.
It’s a festive world that’s certainly hard to resist. Nick Rupard as scenic, prop and puppet designer (the latter an integral part of Quest’s aesthetic) has whipped up a whimsical slice of Yuletide London, especially the glowing miniature buildings upstage. The puppets are certainly unique (and move very well, especially Lindsey Jouett as Tiny Tim) and adds an element akin to a British pantomime to the proceedings, but they could’ve been a more fleshed-out and consistent element. Say, all the characters except Scrooge are played by puppets, which would make him stand out further.
The Ghosts, the movers and the shakers, are also certainly the sort to get the job done. Christmas Past (Cecilia Iole) is well-suited for the impish spirit who’s unafraid to lay on the melancholy; and Christmas Future (Tamara Bodnar) as a doubled-over crone is a nice shake-up from the usual shadowy reapers. But the ever-jovial Christmas Present (Molly LeCaptain) walks (well, sings and jazz dances) away with the most “Broadway” number, “Abundance and Charity.”
The stage may be small, but Director Andrew Park and Choreographer Dennis J. Murphy keep things moving fleetly (in a better sense than the word was used last time) and leave the stage as clear as possible for charming tricks and surprises. (Nothing else to say but Christmas Past loves messing with candles.) Or, even more likely, for the next upbeat dance, like the macabre and pun-tastic “Link by Link” or the merry villagers’ “Fezziwig’s Annual Christmas Ball.”
Ultimately, though, we can’t fault Menken, Ahrens, et al. for not reinventing the wheel. Again, Dickens’ wheel of a novella has been spinning just fine for more than a century. The writers and Quest Theatre have managed to catch some of that wheel’s energy, which will carry them–yes–fleetly through the cobblestone streets of Dickens’s eternally snowy journey.
“A Christmas Carol: The Musical” runs through December 20 at the Blue Theater, 1609 W. Gregory St., Chicago. Performances are on Fridays at 8 pm; Saturdays at 2 pm and 8 pm; and Sundays at 2 pm. Performances are free; reservations are recommended, though not required, and may be made by calling (312) 458-0895 or visiting the Quest website here.