Thursday, October 20, 2022


By Ruth Ross

Many small, regional and local theaters rely on two things to fund their productions: grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and one blockbuster show that raises enough money for the entire season.

The Chatham Community Players falls into the latter category. Its popular biannual production of a musical version of Charles Dickens’ chestnut, A Christmas Carol, in the past has generated enough revenue to pay for two seasons!

That’s why Daniel Sullivan’s Inspecting Carol at the Chatham Playhouse is so delicious. This behind-the-scenes look at the small and desperate Soapbox Playhouse’s hard work on their annual version of A Christmas Carol shows just how many things can go awry when you are trying to be creative. As the company embarks on their final rehearsals four days before opening, they encounter a plethora of missed cues, a great deal of miscasting, physical mishaps and missing props, all especially devastating because they are expecting someone from the NEA to come “inspect” their production before awarding them the $1,000 grant they have precipitously taken away. Add to this a mighty case of mistaken identity, the hiring of a Black actor to make the production and company more inclusive, and the attempt by one cast member to make the script more relevant to the 21st century, and you have a hilarious, madcap romp that exposes—all too clearly in some cases—the marvel that is Theater.

Running about two hours with an intermission, 
Inspecting Carol moves along at a pretty good clip through the first act, although the second act feels long and overwritten. Director Belle Wesel keeps the actors’ physical comedy in constant movement sans accidents. Shannon Garry (right, with David Romankow) is terrific as the play’s director Zorah Bloch, a drama queen herself as she swans around the playing space, constantly reminding us and her cast that she’s Lithuanian, as if that explains everything she does. As her assistant MJ McCann, Paula Ehrenberg is a ball of energy about to erupt as she really does the work of getting the play to gel. She’s the only character who appears to have any sense and responsibility needed to make the production a success. She’s matched by David Romankow as the troupe’s Business Manager Kevin T. Emery, who knows that they are in deep monetary trouble; just watching a numbers man interact with a bunch of “artists” is worth the price of the ticket.

Great comedic chops are on full display by Allan Ellis as Larry Vauxhall, who has been fired and rehired multiple times and who wants to rewrite the script to make it more relevant; Terri Sturtevant as the English-born Dorothy Tree-Hapgood who takes issue with the casts’ accents (her attempt to elicit an English accent brings down the house); and Michael Gencarelli as Wayne Wellacre (left), a would-be actor who wants to audition (his recitation of the “Now is the winter of our discontent” speech from Richard III is hilarious); and Idris Talbott (below right with Shannon Garry) is equally as fine as Walter E. Parsons portraying the three Ghosts, an actor hired for diversity who argues about his costume, only to freeze when he’s really onstage! Kevin Vislocky’s blank face and constant scurrying around is very funny—even if he says not a word.

Jim Clancy was a bit wooden as Sidney Carlton, although his shtick with the chain schlepped by Marley’s Ghost provided some merriment. Shannon Campbell’s late entrance as the real NEA inspector Betty Andrews provided some suspense as to whether the troupe’s efforts would impress her enough to award them some money.

Once again Roy Pancirov (assisted by Alan Ellis and scenic artist Dean Sickler) has designed and constructed a set perfect for a community theater production; indeed, it echoes those used by CCP in their production of A Christmas Carol! Heidi Hart’s costumes are often as hilarious as the actors who wear them, especially Alan Ellis in his Che Guevara tee shirt, knee-length athletic socks and rubber sandals, and Scrooge’s top hat and gray wig and Shannon Garry’s scarves and long skirts that telegraph Zorah Bloch’s “artistic” temperament.

It is difficult to maintain the high level of hilarity necessary for farce, and the energy seemed to flag during Act II, slowing down the rhythm and making the play seem longer than it should be. Nevertheless, if you are a fan of A Christmas Carol and a devotee of the Chatham Community Players’ biannual production (as am I), you’ll get a great kick out of this on-point production. (left, Talbott and Ellis)    
And don’t forget to purchase tickets for the Chatham Community Players’ family-friendly musical version of A Christmas Carol, produced exclusively at the Playhouse since 1988, set to open December 9 and run through December 21!

Inspecting Carol is a worthy prelude to the CCP’s beloved, polished production of A Christmas Carol. If you love theater, you’ll howl at some of the “Easter eggs” the playwright has inserted into the script. Subsequent performances should get the rhythm right. Nevertheless, Inspecting Carol is a worthy production wherein a real theater company mounts a fun-filled, raucous comedy that looks at life behind the scenes with love.

Inspecting Carol will be performed at the Chatham Playhouse, 23 N. Passaic Ave., Chatham, through October 23. For information and tickets, call the box office at 973.635.7363 or visit online.

Photos by John Posada