By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
One ghost is missing from this year's production of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol at Dallas Theater Center. It is not the Ghost of Jacob Marley or of Christmases Past, Present or Yet to Come. They're there in all their clinking, clanking glory.
It is the ghost of former DTC artistic director Richard Hamburger, who seems to have been exorcised from the Kalita Humphreys stage. To borrow from Dickens' description of Ebenezer Scrooge, Hamburger was one who "kept his own low temperature always about him." His artistic temperament could be chilly and dour. New director Kevin Moriarty, by comparison, is a happy, twinkly-eyed elf. Since his arrival in September, a lighter, warmer spirit has infused this theater that was absent when Humbugger, er, Hamburger was in charge.
Lots of off-duty local actors attended opening night of Carol. Moriarty already appears to have made more friends and generated more positive goodwill for himself in the Dallas theater community—primarily by going out to see other companies' shows—than Hamburger did in his 15 years at DTC.
Moriarty, who came here from running a theater in Ithaca, New York, won't direct at DTC until next year. So he had little to do with the actual production of A Christmas Carol other than turn up in a suit at the premiere, bound down the aisle and make the peppy curtain speech. And seeing the two-hour show start to finish for the first time along with the audience, Moriarty admitted he was amazed and impressed by the complicated staging (by director-choreographer Joel Ferrell) and the big special effects. "I know how few [technical] people there are backstage and how limited the budget was for all of it, and frankly I don't see how they've done it," he said at intermission.
Although it has the same script (adapted by Richard Hellesen), set, director, music and largely the same cast—including out-of-town Equity actor Robert Langdon Lloyd back for another go-round as Scrooge—as DTC's Carol of the past two years, this year's looks and feels brand new. Something's different. It's as if the whole production has been feng shui-ed to rid it of bad vibes. The storytelling is clearer, the effects are flawless. The voice of Marley's Ghost, played again by the marvelous Dean Nolen, echoes more forcefully. The fog rolling over 19th-century London is thicker and eerier. Party scenes at the Fezziwigs' and Fred Scrooge's houses reel with more antic comic fun. Everyone's diction is crisper, their singing and dancing more polished. Even Tiny Tim (played once more by William Junkin, who also plays Scrooge as a child) is cuter than before.
A deeper emotional connection exists between actors and their roles this time too, particularly Chamblee Ferguson as Bob Cratchit, Joanna Schellenberg as Christmas Past, M. Denise Lee as Christmas Yet to Come and Lee Trull playing several character parts. Scrooge starts out meaner in the beginning—Lloyd has the audience at "Humbug," his first word—and when he ends up broken with regret, then believably altered and softened by his horrifying dreams, it's deeply moving. Lloyd's Scrooge is so relieved that he's been allowed a second chance at life that he dances on tiptoe as he treats the Cratchits to their Christmas feast. Actors and audience reflect the glow of those wonderful moments.
For once locals outnumber the imports on the DTC stage, and the more the cast members enjoy themselves in Dickens' tale of a miser's rediscovery of the joy of giving, the more we enjoy them. This is the biggest, loudest, sweetest, scariest, dancing-est, singing-est, bed-spinning-est Christmas Carol they've ever given us. As they say onstage in the final toast to Scrooge: Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!
Rockin' Christmas Party won't be content to sing and dance all over its glittery snow globe of a stage at WaterTower Theatre. The roisterous holiday-themed revue also requests—no, demands—that the audience lumber out of their seats and take part in the entertainment.
This show begins in the way so many of us dread, with the cast of six asking if everyone is ready to have a rockin' good time. But they pretend they can't hear up there in their faux-snowy wonderland, so they cup their ears and ask again. And again. And again. "Yeeeeees!" we shriek, hoping it will end their badgering.
But they do go on, begging relentlessly for vocal approval, not satisfied if they get anything less than deafening screams.
Possibilities for a good time, rockin' or otherwise, fade as the obnoxious audience participation factor rises to cruise-ship levels. There are follow-the-leader instructions on how to form the letters Y-M-C-A with your limbs, so you know and fear what you'll have to do with that later on. And there is a limbo contest in which, if you don't stubbornly white-knuckle the armrests, you risk being dragged from your chair and forced to waddle under a broomstick in front of 300 people.
How low can they go to commit bad show-business clichés? Rockin' Christmas Party, directed by James Paul Lemons, roils the senses with more hideously forced cheer than an Osmond family reunion. Everything in this show hurts to listen to or look at. The Day-Glo wigs and silly go-go costumes by Aaron Patrick Turner spill out in the colors and textures of a pill-popper's puddle of sick.
After a three-year hiatus, during which it tried other holiday fare that actually was worse than this, WaterTower returns to Rockin', which originated with an idea by Dave Steakley, artistic director at Austin's Zachary Scott Theatre Center. Alterations and updates have changed the material some over the years, but basically it's a two-hour medley of old pop tunes and tired Christmas standards.
One minute they're bopping their brains out to a souped-up "Jingle Bells," the next they're movin' on up to the theme from The Jeffersons, followed by a not-so-smooth transition to a portly woman (Sara Shelby-Martin) in a black pompadour and sparkly polyester jumpsuit doing Elvis as a hunka-hunka burnin' love.
Oh, the humanity.
And that's only Act 1.
WaterTower's cast works itself to a sweaty froth as they go through the motions of singing musical Velcro that will stick to your brain till St. Swithin's Day. Singers Chimberly Carter and Markus Lloyd manage a couple of decent solos. And that's musical director Scott Eckert ably leading the upstage band and hiding, wisely, behind a huge Christmas tree.
There's a wisp of "story" that weaves the show's 43 songs together—each performer is granted his or her wish from Santa—but it all sounds as if the tunes were picked by flipping randomly through channel choices on an airline headset. The combinations can be cringe-making. Blending "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" and "Sock It to Me, Baby" seems like an invitation to domestic abuse.
Then comes the first-act closer. The cast emerges in purple satin choir robes to launch into the Three Dog Night thing about Jeremiah, the bullfrog who "was a good friend of mine." Then suddenly they go into the other "Joy to the World," the religious one where "heaven and nature sing." They switch back and forth between pop song and Christmas carol. Maddeningly. Loudly. And they want everyone in the house to clap and sing along.
Joy to the world. The frog has come.