Joy and laughter fuel the Rep’s “Christmas Carol”
Fret not, lovers of the Milwaukee Rep’s A Christmas Carol. There may be a new director at the helm and a new man clad in Ebenezer Scrooge’s nightshirt, but you’ll love this year’s production as much as you ever have – maybe even more.
That’s not to suggest it’s business as usual over at the Pabst Theater, home of the production for the 37 years the Rep has been producing it. Director Aaron Posner, a member of the Rep’s new Associate Artists team, has taken a new eye to the script left to him by co-adaptors Joseph Hanreddy and Edward Morgan. What he’s found is something amusing.
Several somethings, in fact: This year, the production’s efforts to bring joy to the hearts of its audience are tailored to make that joy audible laughter. It’s not as though the Rep’s Christmas Carol wasn’t funny before – the last time I saw their production, in 2010, I remember it being quite humorous – but there’s clearly a concerted effort at work here. The succession of visitors to Scrooge’s counting house in the opening scene respond to his humbugging with dry wit, not earnestness, and there’s a good number of nonverbal gags throughout the play that certainly are new additions to the performance.
This motivation brings new life to Charles Dickens’ story, solidified by Christopher Donahue’s portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge. Donahue, the first non-Milwaukee actor to play the role in years, if not decades, brings a younger-than-usual Scrooge to the stage. While the average adaptation of Carol depicts Scrooge on the verge of senility, Donahue’s Scrooge instead rests on the later side of middle age, his fierce mutton chops only betraying wisps of grey.
That younger depiction lays the groundwork for Donahue to create a Scrooge all his own – a man of passion, not coldness, whose disdain for Christmas is the understandable response of a man the world has betrayed one too many times. Donahue’s passion takes the form of cartoonish rage early on and almost farcical glee near the end, but he finds a better balance during his journey with the three Christmas spirits.
The casting of those spirits is a small coup for Posner. It’s brilliant enough to deny us an expectedly enchanting Ghost of Christmas Past and instead give us a strict taskmaster (Renata Friedman) who better fits the darker elements of Scrooge’s past. But to replace the stereotypical Father Christmas version of the Ghost of Christmas Present with a vivacious, brash black woman (Melody Betts) is daring. And worth it. Betts is a delight every minute she’s on stage, bringing an immediate brightness that counters the darkness of the first act, and the unique twist is more than stunt casting – Betts’ spirit of Christmas is easily as bounteous as any bearded, roly-poly old man could be.
A great many Milwaukee regulars strengthen the supporting cast, either for the first time or the latest time. Jonathan Smoots played Marley and Christmas Present the last time I saw Carol, but he’s equally suited for the roles of Mr. Philpot, a solicitor of holiday donations, and Mr. Fezziwig, young Scrooge’s employer; both let him embrace Posner’s directive to make the audience laugh, and he does many a time. Jonathan Wainwright hits the usual Bob Cratchit-y notes but adds a dash of roguish cheer, smirking at attempts to melt the heart of Scrooge and flirting with Mrs. Cratchit (the always-delightful Marti Gobel) when his children aren’t looking.
They and the remainder of the large cast tackle the carols spread across the production well, and all the ensemble moments are sprinkled with the levity Posner desires. I do wish he hadn’t directed them to deliver some of the play’s incidental narration in unison, though. It’s a well-meaning gesture, but two to five actors trying to say a line at exactly the same time are, quite simply, not going to, and the results are unnecessarily muddled.
Since the Rep’s set is reused each year, Posner didn’t shake up the staging too much, to my memory. He did make the questionable decision of blocking a number of scenes with important characters’ backs facing the audience – including Donahue himself, in his first scene – but redeemed himself by eschewing set pieces entirely for the future scenes, simply illuminating portions of the dark, bare stage to create an ominous ambiance.
More than anything, the production felt like a successful experiment, especially if (as I suspect) Posner is on tap to take over the annual show. It’d be a good move. There’s certainly still room to develop Posner’s vision of this classic tale, and giving him more chances to take a swing at the show will only improve his batting average.
For now, the Rep’s Christmas Carol remains the stable holiday home run it always is – and, we hope, always will be.
The Milwaukee Rep’s A Christmas Carol runs through December 24 at the Pabst Theater. Tickets are $15 to $70 and can be purchased online or at (414) 224-9490.