In 1843, Charles Dickens toured London’s Field Lane Ragged School at the request of his friend Angela Burdett Coutts, a wealthy bank heiress who was dedicated to social reform. Coutts and the volunteers who worked at the school hoped the famous author would lend his hand to the fight against child poverty with a political pamphlet describing the plight of the children he met there. But instead, he gave them – and the world – A Christmas Carol.
The book was released in time for Christmas that year, and sold 6,000 copies in just a few days. But Dickens – perhaps dedicated more to the political cause than remedying his ever-fragile finances – insisted that the book be published with the best binding available – gold lettering on the cover, fancy endpapers – and he demanded that it cost only five schillings. With those constraints, A Christmas Carol, despite its popularity, was a financial disaster.
Dickens would surely crack a wry smile at the status of his much-loved book today. Seldom read as an 80-page novella, its characters and story have nonetheless become almost universally known as symbols of Christmas, and have become holiday staples in theaters around the English-speaking world. Like Dickens, the groups that stage A Christmas Carol are passionate about its message of charity and kindness. They also often bind that message in fancy trappings, and wouldn’t mind if it contributed to their bottom line.
The Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s new adaptation of A Christmas Carol, written and directed by Rep Artistic Director Mark Clements, should prove a success on both counts. It opened this weekend to packed houses at the Pabst Theater, and in many ways showed why Dickens’ story endures.
Not that the tale doesn’t need a little nudge now and then. Working in the interactive era of retweets and Facebook “likes,” Clements rightly figures that a Victorian-era story told in Victorian-era language might need a leg up to thoroughly engage the many kids and occasional theater-goers in the holiday audience, particularly if it’s told in the beautiful but less-than intimate Pabst Theater. Taking cues from children’s theater, Clements has his characters break out of their Victorian world and engage the audience with questions.
“Should I look under the bed?” asks Ebenezer Scrooge (Jonathan Wainwright) as he warily wonders about the strange noises he’s hearing in his bedroom. “Yeeessss!” the audience answers enthusiastically. “Are you sure?” “Yessss!”
As you might guess, it leads to a sort of herky-jerky engagement with Dickens’ world. Wainwright has to switch gears from callous misanthrope to needy scaredy-cat in the early stages of the story. And the ethereal Ghost of Christmas Past (Deborah Staples), bedecked in a glowing, flame-crowned costume, becomes a little more earth bound when she breaks the fourth wall to ask if she should continue showing Scrooge episodes from his life.
Such liberties didn’t seem to faze the crowd at last weekend’s early Sunday matinee. The audience members were enthusiastic dramaturgs, and the actors relished the chance to “act out” a bit for the big house (particularly Angela Iannone and Michael Doherty, delivering a frenetic curtain speech to set the stage for the story).
Clements’s script is drawn primarily from Dickens’ beautiful language, including a prologue featuring the author himself (Wainwright, bearing an uncanny resemblance) reading the first few paragraphs. The seasoned actors handle the words marvelously, nestling into the music of the prose and relishing the variety of accents they deploy (Chike Johnson even starts a not-too-Dickensian tradition – playing the Ghost of Christmas Present with as a joyous Jamaican).
The production that surrounds them is stunning. Scenic designer Todd Edward Ivins creates various Victorian interiors and exteriors with two turntables, one inside the other. The transitions are smooth, and often evoke the delight of bustling London street life. Along with Alex Tecoma’s costumes and Jeff Nellis’ lighting design, the show offers a series of sumptuous tableaux (many drawn from Thomas Cruikshank’s original book illustrations). And there was obvious delight in the most talked about technical coup, the “snow” that fell throughout the theater at the end of each act.
Who knows how Dickens would feel about snow flurries inside a theater. But he would certainly feel vindicated that his ardent plea for generous compassion is echoing in packed theaters around the world. Clements’ new production keeps that message alive, even while binding it in whiz-bang theatrical trappings that suit the 21st century.
You may have noticed that Culture Club has been “offline” for a while. But it has returned, in a new format. Each week, I’ll write at length about one of the past week’s most interesting performances. And I’ll offer some brief thoughts on events that are on the horizon, the most promising performances slated for the coming week.
Now, of course, we are firmly in the grasp of the holiday season, with lots of Christmas-related shows on local stages. John Kishline and Edward Morgan’s drama about a lonely radio host, Unsilent Night is in its last week of performances at Next Act Theatre. For lighter, wackier fare, In Tandem’s production of Anthony Wood and Mondy Carter’s Holiday Hell: The Curse of Perry Williams runs through January 8th. Langston Hughes’s Black Nativity, produced by Black Arts MKE is in its final weekend as well. And Skylight Music Theatre’s La Cage Aux Folles continues through December 23. And a very un-holiday play is on tap to initiate Renaissance Theatreworks’ Groundworks series, which promises to “stage bold, adventurous theater and cultivate new artists. The inaugural play is Jen Silverman’s Still, a provocative exploration of birth and motherhood.
There’s plenty of music of all stripes, of course. The Wisconsin Conservatory of Music’s talented We Six pays tribute to composer Michel Legrand. Early Music Now hosts the Minnesota-based Rose Ensemble for two concerts of medieval and Renaissance Christmas music. There are two fine concerts of chamber music. The Fine Arts Quartet plays music of Shostakovich, Mozart and Schubert at UWM’s Zelazo Center. And the newest group on the classical music scene, Milwaukee Musiak, offers a concert of music for piano quintet at the Schwan Concert Hall in Wauwatosa.
The big event of the coming week is the Milwaukee Ballet’s annual production of The Nutcracker. Look for my thoughts on it next week.