By Colin Douglas
First published in 1843, Charles Dickens’ beloved holiday novella has become a classic, as immortal as the Ghost of Jacob Marley. Influenced by the author’s own childhood, this popular story appeared at a time when Londoners were rediscovering old holiday traditions, as well as new customs, such as decorating the Christmas tree. Following an eye-opening visit to a school for poor British orphans, while continually being faced by the wealthy 1%, who only cared about how to become richer, Dickens was moved to write this cautionary tale as a response to the current callousness.
Not surprisingly, what was true back in Victorian London still haunts us today. The shrewd theatergoer will recognize a raft of Scrooge’s odious traits in our current President and his cronies, which makes The Q Brothers Christmas Carol, a contemporary retelling of Dickens’ holiday classic, even more pertinent. In the hands of these five clever, creative artists, A Christmas Carol has never looked or sounded more meaningful or timely.
There are probably as many holiday productions glittering around the Chicago theatre scene as there are chestnuts roasting on an open fire; and at least a dozen or more of these shows are variations of Charles Dickens’ tale. The Victorian author might be surprised, and perhaps a little proud, at how his novella about one curmudgeon’s redemption has been adapted for the stage, film, opera and all forms of media. But this production by The Q Brothers, back by popular demand at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, has fast become one of the Windy City’s favorite holiday events, especially among younger, hipper audiences. And it’s a terrific, cleverly-written and utterly captivating piece of theatre that deserves all the high praise it’s receiving.
Developed primarily by two siblings, who use the professional names GQ and JQ, this updated holiday musical is another collaboration with Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Their
“Ad-rap-tations” also include “Funk It Up About Nothin,’” “The Bomb-itty of Errors” and “Othello: The Remix,” popular hip-hop updates of the Bard’s classics. This current, slightly revised production of Dickens’ famous story features the talents of both Q Brothers, as well as their two collaborators, Jackson Doran and Postell Pringle. Together, these four mega-talented young men not only came up with the concept and wrote this fast-paced script, continually updating it with current Chicago events, but they perform it, as well.
Audiences returning to this happy holiday production will not only delight once again in the brilliance of this production, but they’ll recognize how this show’s become ingrained inside these gifted guys. Ably assisted by experienced DJ and sound designer Kieran Pereira, perched high above the playing area, this contemporary rockin’, poppin’, hip-hoppin’ musical is 75 minutes of highly energetic holiday magic, with a message that’s timeless, as well as being au courant.
It’s impossible to single out any one of these gifted, engaging, vivacious actors. They’re all equally talented, both musically and dramatically, and work so well together as a team. Yet, in spite of this unity, each performer manages to shine individually, like the Christmas star. GQ not only directs the production, he energetically inhabits Scrooge, the only actor playing a single character. However, this animated young actor, director and co-creator of the piece, clad in gray from head to toe, portrays Ebenezer at various ages and stages of his life. In that respect, GQ is also playing multiple roles in this play.
His brother, co-creator, writer, director and composer JQ, is simply astounding in a variety of roles. He plays a very funny Ghost of Jacob Marley as a delightfully stoned Rastafarian, clad in wild dreadlocks, a la Bob Marley. In addition, he also plays Marley as a younger man, as well as Scrooge’s one true love, Belle Fezzi. He’s also the joyful Ghost of Christmas Present and one of two Jewish businessmen collecting money for those less fortunate. But perhaps JQ’s best character is Tiny Tim, played as a winsome junior hypochondriac, whose list of ailments hilariously increases with each verse of his song. JQ’s rap as little Tim Cratchit is sidesplitting and includes some impressive breakdance moves, all amazingly performed with the aid of a crutch.
Pringle, another co-creator of the piece, is strong, handsome and humorous, both as Bob Cratchit and his bold and brassy eldest daughter, Martha. The scene between the two characters is a tour de force that must be seen to be appreciated. As the effusive Spirit of Christmas Past he’s filled with all the warmth and delight of fond memories. Mr. Pringle even turns into a spunky, updated version of the Turkey Boy toward the end of the play, and he’s an inexhaustible participant in every ensemble number.
Last, but certainly not least, is co-creator and multitalented performer, Doran. This likable actor plays a multitude of characters, including Scrooge’s flamboyant nephew, Fred, the miser’s only living relative and the son of his beloved deceased sister, Frannie. As Fred, Doran is cheerful, charismatic and bubbly, a gay young man and a devotee of party games, married to his same-sex partner (played with hilarity by Pringle). Doran also plays Scrooge’s childhood pal, Dick Wilkins, one of the two Jewish businessmen collecting money for the poor and, his funniest creation, Mrs. Rose Cratchit. This lady, decked out in apron, hairnet and curlers, is a sassy, red-hot mama who’s part Julia Child and part Beyoncé, bringing down the house with all the right moves. He’s absolutely hilarious.
This production, nestled in the impressive, newly-designed Yard, with cafe tables and chairs lining the acting area, resembles a nightclub or a cabaret. Scott Davis’ simple set is a tiny, T-shaped concert stage, accented with colored lights, that brings the action into the lap of the audience. Jesse Klug’s lighting is dominated by a colorful, ever-changing neon skyline of Chicago and includes some special effects, like the blacklight number for the Ghost of Christmas Future, as well as the big, splashy finale. Davis’ costumes, accented by Melissa Veal’s transforming wigs and makeup design, allow this tiny quartet to quickly morph into a cast of thousands.
The amount of energy that overflows from this production, coupled with its flash and fleetness, along with the sheer entertainment value and cleverness of the script and songs, makes for a joyful evening at the theatre. This is one holiday production that could easily be enjoyed at any time of the year. And while the show might be aimed at younger theatergoers, savvy audiences of all ages will delight in the imaginative retelling of a familiar story.
It offers brilliantly clever, gymnastic wordplay, refreshing new musical numbers and exuberant dance breaks. Featuring captivating performances, an abundance of energy and creativity and a unique chemistry with the audience, every performance is special. If theatergoers aren’t thrilled by this exciting, enjoyable production, as Scrooge would say, “You can Chris-my-ass-miss!”
Chicago Shakespeare Theatre presents “The Q Brothers Christmas Carol” through December 31 at the Yard venue of Chicago Shakespeare Theater, at Navy Pier, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.