Brian Jacobson

A Christmas Carol at the Pabst Theater

By - Nov 28th, 2009 06:59 am
Jonathan Smoots, James Pickering and cast in the Milwaukee Rep's production of A Christmas Carol. All photos by Jay Westhauser.

Jonathan Smoots, James Pickering and cast in the Milwaukee Rep’s production of A Christmas Carol. All photos by Jay Westhauser.

The idea of making big plans to attend the theater during the winter holidays often conjures up a pre-conceived idea  of how it should be. A staging of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol at the historic Pabst Theater, for instance, should involve: some of the best members of Milwaukee’s Repertory Acting Company; Victorian scenery with fluid movement between location changes; costuming straight from an 18th-century snowglobe village; proper British dialects and traditional carols sung by the ensemble.

If this is the setup you imagined, then you will not be disappointed. Director and co-adapter Joseph Hanreddy (the other play adapter is Edward Morgan) have created a play that would seem very close to the original Dickens text, right down to having ensemble characters narrate parts of it to the audience as introduction and explanation. In fact, in format and substance, the play feels Shakespearean within this treatment.

caroltopTo the serious theatergoer, this is not a slight but praise. However, I decided to introduce my two nieces — age 7 and 10 — to live theater with this production. Somehow, I forgot an important aspect of Carol; it’s a wintry ghost story that gets intense at times. While both girls were often bowled over by the opulence and visual agog of the play, it was mostly over both their heads and very long (including intermission, it was just over 135 minutes). With the highly authentic English accents and verbiage, this version of the story may be a bit difficult for children to absorb and comprehend.

As for the play, it is a fine thing with taut acting. Standouts of course include James Pickering as Scrooge, who inhabits the oft-played role like a glove. To give this staging the feeling of a huge cast, many Rep players have multiple roles. So praise for Jonathan Smoots in this case goes to his scenes as Mr. Fezziwig, as he brings a deeper humanness to the role. Torrey Hanson turns in a proper journeyman actor’s performance as Bob Cratchit, and Lee E. Ernst reminds you in one Christmas Past flashback that Jacob Marley was malevolent compared to Ebenezer Scrooge.

(Editor’s Note: For a full conversation and podcast with James Pickering talking about tackling Scrooge, visit this link.)

With generous funding by the MillerCoors Company, not suprisingly the play’s setting was more than adequate. The lighting and backdrops are fine-tuned and efficient; the makeup is rosy and sometimes expressionist; and while I missed having a live orchestra, the empty pit services neatly as an underworld/downstairs apartment/sewer system/cemetery pit at clever moments. There is a mysteriously distracting subplot involving bachelors at the Christmas Present house party of nephew Fred and wife Catherine, but otherwise the play ticks off all the expected scenes with the gravitas or celebratory spirit that they deserve.

In the end, snow falls lightly on Scrooge in his smart black suit with red scarf. He hoists Tiny Tim up on his shoulders while everyone sings a rousing “Joy to the World.” It’s perfect, idyllic and traditional in just about every way — as you might have imagined it should be.

The Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s production of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens continues through Dec. 27 at the Pabst. For ticketing information, call 414-224-9490 or visit The Rep’s website here. Bring spare dollars, as costumed actors collect funds at the various exits for the Next Door Foundation, which benefits local at-risk children. Take time to enjoy the Jingle Bus and elaborate downtown holiday lights set up at Cathedral Square, Pere Marquette Park and Zeidler Union Square. For more info and times, visit this website.

Categories: Theater, VITAL

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