By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Ignorance, poverty, greed, forgiveness—the themes of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol are particularly relevant at this moment. What makes a classic a classic is that it has something to say to every generation, and though the annual production at Dallas Theater Center is almost identical to last year's—including the return of former Royal Shakespeare Company member Robert Langdon Lloyd to the role of Ebenezer Scrooge—the messages this 165-year-old story delivers are chillingly contemporary.
Just look at those real-life Scrooges who have dominated the news lately. Hard to decide who most closely resembles literature's nastiest skinflint: the auto industry execs who took private jets to D.C. to plead for bailout money, or perpetually scowling Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson.
With our own budgets stretched to the ha'penny and year-end bonuses a thing of Christmases past, it's tempting to spiral into a bad case of the holiday humbug. But if Bob Cratchit, Scrooge's much put-upon clerk and father to ailing Tiny Tim, can muster holiday cheer in tough times, can't we?
It's all but impossible not to, after an evening with Dickens' characters at DTC, which has gone all out with a lavishly produced and gloriously performed theatrical antidote to grinchiness. With great ingenuity, director-choreographer Joel Ferrell has revived his own revival of Carol (adapted by Richard Hellesen). Ferrell has quickened the pace, tightened the storytelling and heightened the humor and special effects. That means more rolling clouds of London fog over the Kalita Humphreys stage and a crisper, louder, more imaginative sound design by Ryan Rumery.
Ferrell also has cast an ensemble of Dallas' top professional thesps—M. Denise Lee, Chamblee Ferguson, Shannon J. McGrann, Joanna Schellenberg, Lee Trull, Jessica D. Turner and others—who seem to glow a little brighter than usual, perhaps from the glad tidings of union-wage employment in a big-budget spectacular.
Besides its ability to perform cockle-warming on all but the coldest-cockled, A Christmas Carol entertains as a spellbinding ghost story. The elderly Scrooge is haunted four times on Christmas Eve. First comes the chain-dragging ghost of business partner Jacob Marley (played by DTC newcomer Hassan El-Amin, whose voice thunders like James Earl Jones). As the clock chimes away the hours, Scrooge awakes to Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Future, each spelling out the price Scrooge has paid for his greedy ways.
As the DTC stage revolves, we glimpse the lives of the poor Cratchits (Ferguson, McGrann and, as Tiny Tim, Christian Wikoff) and learn of the relationship Scrooge is missing with his only relative, jolly nephew Fred (Matthew Gray). The liveliest scene is from Scrooge's past, a party at the Fezziwigs', where young Ebenezer (dashing SMU drama student Evan Farrior) proposes to the girl (Turner) who will leave him later on, a heartbreak that triggers his bitterness.
The dream-journey through his psychoses allows Scrooge to see his own inevitable end, dying "solitary as an oyster," with the poor wretches who find his body and pick his corpse's pockets. Talk about an "aha" moment. Dickens' story is a timeless reminder that it's never too late to open the heart to love and the pocketbook to help the less fortunate.
The moral of good deeds and good vibes continues even after the final bows at DTC, with Carol's youngest cast members in the lobby collecting donations for the North Texas Food Bank, a nifty idea that leaves just-inspired audience members feeling extra Christmas-y as they head out into the winter night.————
Budget constraints have reduced Theatre Britain to one show a year. Thankfully, they have bypassed the Bard and gone for a "panto," a tradition on England's stages at the holidays. In a panto, you get a retelling of a familiar fairy tale with a mix of old-time music hall sing-alongs, slapstick, black-light puppetry and gently naughty drag humor.
In Theatre Britain's Little Red Riding Hood, loosely adapted by Jackie Mellor-Guin, the title character (played by the squeeze-ably cute Jad B Saxton) is at the mercy of her over-the-top mumsy, Mother Hood (Kevin Scott Keating). Convinced to cater foodstuffs to her sick granny (Terry McCracken), Red sets off into the forest, stalked by a trio of hungry she-wolves (Octavia Y. Thomas, Sarah King, Rebekah Kennedy). Kindly woodsman Charlie (played in boy-drag by Danielle Pickard) comes to Red and granny's rescue just in time, and also serves as dispute mediator between ladies and beasties. In true panto form, the upbeat ending is goofy and heartwarming.
Goodies for everyone abound in this 90-minute show directed with an appropriate lack of subtlety by Theatre Britain founder Sue Roberts-Birch. If they aren't thrown off by a Mrs. Hood who sings baritone and stands over six feet tall in heels, little kids will get a kick out of hissing her and the villainous wolves (audience participation is part of every panto). Grown-ups who pay close attention can giggle at the mild double entendres Mellor-Guin drops in about the impressive size of Charlie's "chopper."
The budget may have been slim, but the look of Little Red Riding Hood is rich. Thousands of fall-colored leaves festoon the set designed by Darryl Clement. Wig and makeup stylist Coy Covington has made sure every hair and spot of rouge is spot-on. The girls—even the one who's really not—have a glam-a-rama gloss. The big bad wolf prowls the stage in a striking black suit set with sparkly sequins; her assistant wolves wear pastel pajamas. Costumer Robin Armstrong goes all out with Mrs. Hood's couture, a dress that turns comically gifted Keating into a gigantic piece of Delft pottery complete with ball-fringe "cozy" and poufy "lid" hat. When he strikes the "I'm a little teapot" stance, the image is complete.
As pantos go, this one's just our cuppa.————
Trouble sleeping? Try Beautiful Star: An Appalachian Nativity at Addison's WaterTower Theatre. Performed in whispery tones, directed and acted at a pace so sluggish you'll think your watch has stopped, this hokey musical is better than hot milk and Ambien for making eyelids droop.
The script by Preston Lane has a country preacher (Bill Jenkins, overdoing the folksiness) and his ill-clad flock telling Bible stories in hillbilly patois. They start with Genesis: "In the beginnin' there weren't nuthin." It only gets worse. And it only gets through highlights of the Old Testament by intermission. The second long half mumbles through the Gospels, with King Herod exclaiming, "Dagnabbit, I'm-a royalty."
Actor Russell DeGrazier as Joseph finds some integrity in interpreting the material and he has a strong singing voice, the best in a 15-member cast. The rest is a mind-numbing muddle of weak bluegrass and bad grammar.