Sunday, December 18, 2016

REVIEW: NEW STAGING OF “A CHRISTMAS CAROL” AT CHATHAM COMMUNITY PLAYERS LACKS MAGIC

By Ruth Ross

Cratchit Family 2016

During the past 20 years, I have looked forward with great anticipation to the Chatham Community Players’ musical version of Charles Dickens’ holiday tale, A Christmas Carol. And for the ten productions I’ve seen, I haven’t been disappointed. But this time, although the book by Philip Wm. McKinley and music and lyrics by McKinley and Suzanne Buhrer are still the same, the performance felt “off,” different. Perhaps it’s the result of a trimmed budget or a reimagining gone awry, but this production felt flat, lacking in the magic and energy of past productions, much to my dismay.

There’s no monkeying with Dickens’ ghost story involving the skinflint Ebenezer Scrooge who, in the course of one eventful night, is visited by ghosts who reveal to him his Christmas Past, Present and Future. As a result of these experiences, the emotionally cold and grasping miser is transformed into a warm and loving man.

The first difference can be found in the set designed by Jim Bazewicz and painted by Andrea Sickler. Meant to replicate a street in 1843 London, the Tudor facade looks as though it were built yesterday, instead of three centuries before the action at hand. It looks too new and lacks the weathering of 300 years to make it interesting. Sliding panels reveal Scrooge’s bedchamber; because of the scenery’s flatness, it was difficult to see from the left block of theater seats where I sat. Nor was Richard Hennessy’s lighting as atmospherically spooky as it’s been in the past, which robbed the production of its eerie, otherworldly mood.

Alan Semok as ScroogeDirector Jeff Fiorello (back for his second spin with the production) moves things along efficiently; the production clocks in at a tidy two hours. But he has made some directorial decisions that rob the performance of its immediacy and intimacy. Much of the opening action is played under the proscenium arch against the facade, with only cursory use made of the playing space surrounded on three sides by audience seating. To wit, Scrooge’s desk is placed onstage; his clerk Bob Cratchit’s is in the playing space, lengthening the physical and psychological distance between the two. Alan Semok as Scrooge (right) sings his paean to money (“The Jingle of Money”) most of the time onstage, descending to the playing space for only a few bars, thus keeping his grasping greediness at a remove from the audience as well.

Other musical numbers are performed in the space, but some of the voices (especially those of the children) are difficult to hear. I usually sit in the center of the audience; this time, I was on the left side facing the stage and had a hard time hearing the Cratchit children when they had their backs to me. No one is miked, so the players really need to project. Many of the principal actors are making their debuts at the Playhouse; they need to be coached to be heard throughout the little black box theater. This is especially true for the two young actors portraying the Boy Scrooge and his sister Fan in their reunion before returning home for Christmas.

Other scenes lack energy. The party at the Fezziwigs’ warehouse is loud, but not really boisterous; the hilarity so apparent in past years feels forced. And the “Pawnbroker’s Song” is very difficult to understand (especially from where I sat) except for the refrain, “Cheerio, tata, so long, dearie”; each member of the greedy quartet sounded garbled when singing alone.

Mr and Mrs DickensThe returning principal actors are superb for the most part. Alan Semok seems a bit tired in the role of Scrooge; he’s played it for the past 11 productions, but this performance lacked relish and zing. Gus Ibranyi (top, holding Tiny Tim) is a strong Bob Cratchit; Joelle Bochner a droll Mrs. Dickens. And Chip Prestera (left, with Bochner) a terrific Charles Dickens, who narrates the story and sometimes becomes involved in the action.

Fran Harrison’s costumes were appropriate to the period, and Dawn Afandor’s choreography moved the large cast smoothly around the stage. Direction of the quartet of musicians by Jack Bender accompanied the singers well; he even managed to avoid drowning out the children’s voices.

I have often counseled young critics to “review the production you are watching, not one you’ve seen before,” so you might say I am breaking my own rule. The Chatham Community Players’ version of A Christmas Carol has become such a holiday fixture that it’s really difficult to avoid doing so. I think that casting a production depends on the people who come to audition, but it’s up the director to get the best performances from the cast he selects. Without that, even an old favorite loses some of its shine. If you’ve never seen A Christmas Carol before, you probably won’t be disappointed. If you are, come back in two years to see what they’ll do next time.

A Christmas Carol will be performed at the Chatham Playhouse, 23 N. Passaic Ave., Chatham, through December 22. For information, call the box office at 973.635.7363 or visit www.chathamplayers.org online.

Tickets can be purchased online starting on November 1. To access the theater’s new online ticketing service, where you can now reserve your particular seat, simply go to ccp.booktix.com. The service is available 24 hours a day. Purchasing tickets in person at Chatham Playhouse’s box office will begin on November 29. For information regarding box office hours, please call the box office number at 973.635.7363. Patrons with special needs requiring seating accommodations should contact the Playhouse at least 24 hours prior to the performance. Without prior notice, accommodations cannot be guaranteed.

Top: (L-R Standing) Caila Yarwood of Bridgewater, Gus Ibranyi from Bloomfield, Erin Dambrie of Madison, Ivan Grandov from New Providence (L-R Seated) Eila Francis of Springfield, Logan Guvenel from Chatham and Sky Monroe from Morristown make up the entire Cratchit Family. Photos by Howard Fischer.