Category Archive for: ‘Greg & Suzanne Angeo’

“Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol” at Marin Theatre Company and “Scrooge” at Spreckels Theatre Company

Reviewed by Suzanne and Greg Angeo

 

A Tale of Two Scrooges

‘Tis the season for holiday classics. While many take comfort in tradition and the reassuring messages of generations past, some like a fresh approach. Fine examples to satisfy either taste are on view at two Bay Area theatres.

Khris Lewin, Rami Margron
(photo courtesy of MTC)

There are countless versions of Charles Dickens’ yuletide standard A Christmas Carol, and they all focus on what happens to that old meanie, Ebenezer Scrooge. But what about the catalyst for Scrooge’s salvation – his equally mean and miserly partner, dead-as-a-doornail Jacob Marley? Award-winning playwright, actor and director Tom Mula answers this question and more in his startling, otherworldly Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol, based on his novel of the same name. The audio version of the novel enjoyed great success on National Public Radio and ran for six seasons, winning the INDI Award for Spoken Word. Mula then crafted his book into a solo piece which he performed himself during its debut in 1998 at the Goodman Theater  in Chicago. Later he reworked the piece into a play for four actors, and this is the version now being presented at Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley. It’s a truly original experience, combining elements of radio drama, comedy, traditional theatre and pantomime in the most enchanting and unexpected ways.

The story begins in the afterlife where Marley, in chains, comes to realize that he can only redeem himself by redeeming the miserable Scrooge. He sets out on his mission accompanied by a sort of puckish angel-guide known as The Bogle. His interactions with Scrooge and the three Spirits of Christmas (Past, Present and Future, played by each of the cast members in multiple roles) are by now well-known, but presented here with a more poignant urgency since we now know the reason behind this ghostly intervention. There are intense physical gymnastics required of the actors, which heightens the visual impact. Characters also must pivot from third-person to first-person narratives in the blink of an eye.

Khris Lewin in the lead role of Marley brings great emotional shading and empathy to this heretofore mysterious and stunted character of classic literature. His resourceful sidekick The Bogle is played like a  gutsy Tinkerbelle by Rami Margron, perhaps the most entertaining and engaging performer in the show. Nicholas Pelczar is effective as Scrooge, playing second fiddle to Marley in this story, but he can’t match Lewin’s energy and seems almost subdued in comparison.

Khris Lewin (standing), Nicholas Pelczar
(photos courtesy of MTC)

The role of the Record Keeper was to be played by Stacy Ross, but just moments  before curtain at a recent matinee, she was rushed to the hospital with a severe back injury. MTC Artistic Director Jasson Minadakis bravely stepped into the breach to read her part off-book. There’s no doubt the show was thrown a little off-balance for this one performance, but unfortunately the MTC budget does not allow for understudies.  Minadakis did the best he could on such short notice.

A network of scaffolding and pipes that extends the width of the stage serves as the set, with no props to speak of with the possible exception of one large, thick-limbed table that is flipped and repositioned to serve many different forms. Jon Tracy’s fluid direction and choreographic staging keeps the cast in constant, hyper-kinetic motion.  Dazzling light effects by Kurt Landisman include a universe of stars that fill the theater. Flashlights are put into the hands of the actors to highlight certain scenes in highly creative ways. The beams form the frames of a window, radiate like angel wings or spotlight another character’s face at critical moments. This Christmas Carol is a thrilling, truly exceptional show, a perfect harmony of performers, light and sound.

Meanwhile, to the north, there’s Scrooge, the musical version of the Dickens classic A Christmas Carol.  Delighting audiences and rattling the walls at the small 84-seat black box theater at the Spreckels Performing Arts Center in Rohnert Park, it’s a wondrous tempest in a teacup, definitely family fare.

Here we’re in more familiar territory, with Scrooge being Scrooge, and getting his ghostly visits accompanied by lively musical numbers and show-stopping choreography. Based on the 1970 film with music and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse, the production at Spreckels features unique scenic and lighting effects courtesy of their proprietary Paradyne projection system. Director Gene Abravaya was aware of the challenges of staging such a big show in a small space and ensures that the action never lets up. Each member of the cast of 19, from lead performers to ensemble, remains fully animated. It’s a wonder, but they manage to use every square inch of space during the dance numbers nicely choreographed by Michella Snyder, pulling it off with nary a hitch.

Harry Duke, Tim Setzer
(photo by Eric Chazankin)

Tim Setzer leads the way as the nasty Scrooge. He has a very special intensity playing this difficult role,  and he’s in superb voice as his character transforms; churlish growls give way  to tender entreaties and joyful shouts. His is possibly the best performance in the show, and he’s in good company. Dwayne Stincelli as Fezziwig and Peter Warden as Scrooge’s nephew Fred offer fine, nuanced performances. Also noteworthy are Pam Koppel as the Ghost of Christmas Past and Sam Starr as Tom Jenkins. The key role of Tiny Tim is played by little Andrea Luekens who  has a lovely singing voice. Marley’s ghost (Harry Duke, looking and sounding much like a baleful Alfred Hitchcock) arrives on the scene early on and, setting the tone, is more comic than spook. But there are some scary moments to be sure, with loud rumblings that vibrate the very rafters and ghostly zombies slithering out from under the front-row seats.

Abravaya says that the intimacy of this smaller venue demands a higher level of emotional reaction from his cast to keep the audience fully engaged. When you see the performers from inches away, every subtle reaction counts, where a bigger theater is more forgiving and gestures can be more broad. This strategy is a great success, fully showcasing the talent of the cast. As for music, there’s only an electronic piano played by music director Cynthia Heath, along with bass and drums to provide accompaniment to the elaborate  musical numbers, but it works. Some of the more inspiring songs include “ Make the Most of This World”, “The Minister’s Cat”, “Love While You Can”, and the especially rousing “Thank You Very Much”. Costume designer Pamela Enz does a remarkable job, effectively calling up the Dickensian world.

Cast of “Scrooge”
(photo by Eric Chazankin)

In Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol, Marley ultimately loses his chains, but he’s not so lucky in Scrooge. These two productions present very different views of the infamous Scrooge, but they have a common theme: our time on Earth is short, and we must cherish each moment and the ones we love.  Both leave you invigorated, with a warm and cozy outlook just right for celebrating the holidays. See one or both – you can’t go wrong.

Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol presented by Marin Theatre Company

When: now through December 22, 2013

8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays

7:30 p.m. Wednesdays

2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays

2 p.m. Saturday, December 28

Tickets: $37 to $58

Location: Marin Theatre Company

397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley CA 94941
Phone: 415-388-5208

Website: www.marintheatre.org

 

Scrooge presented by Spreckels Theatre Company

When: Now through December 22, 2013

7:30 p.m. Thursdays

8:00 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays

2:00 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays

Tickets: $22 to $26 (reserved seating)

Location: Bette Condiotti Theater at Spreckels Performing Arts Center

5409 Snyder Lane, Rohnert Park CA
Phone: 707-588-3400

Website: www.spreckelsonline.com