Thursday, December 14, 2017

Millbrook: "A Country Christmas Carol"

Director Sam Wallace and the Millbrook Community Players, Inc. opened A Country Christmas Carol last weekend with a cast of fifteen actors, most of them playing multiple roles, and including some fledgling talents who show promise for the future.

This musical version of the Charles Dickens classic -- book by Ron Kaehler, music by Albert Evans, lyrics by Evans and Kaehler -- tells the story of Eb Scrooge's [Matthew Givens] overnight change from mean-spirited miser to a benevolent and generous friend to all, with the intervention on his behalf of former business partner Jacob Marley who has enlisted the Ghosts of Christmases Past [Ashlee Lassiter], Present [Roger Humber], and Yet to Come [Timothy Rotkiewicz] to turn Scrooge around.

Setting this version in the 1950s in Marley County, USA, allows for some homespun local color and recognizable stereotypes; but in a number of twists from the original, Scrooge's clerk Bob Cratchitt is now a single mother named Bobbie Jo Cratchitt [Chloe Prentice], who gets fired on Christmas Eve yet manages to keep the spirit of Christmas for the sake of her two children: Jane [Natalie Lantz] and Tim [Jack Walker]; Scrooge's kindly nephew Fred is now called Dwight [Steven Deloney], the beloved town drunk; and "Tiny Tim" doesn't get to proclaim "God bless us, every one".

The score is unremarkable, though there are a few moments to highlight action, theme, and character: "Angel Beside Me", "I Gave Myself a Bottle for Christmas", "Golden Idol", "Goodbye Old Dog", "Less is More", and "Life Goes to Show You" fit the bill. -- Megan Lofgren's excellent keyboard accompaniment sometimes overpowers the voices on stage.

The script is long on exposition that firmly establishes Scrooge's negative impact on the community, making much of the later hauntings feel somewhat rushed.

The production was beset with several problems during the rehearsal period, and a few last minute cast replacements made for some tentative performances. -- That notwithstanding, there are a few actors whose performances stood out: Ms. Lassiter [Lavinia and Christmas Past] and Ms. Prentice [Bobbie Jo and Belle] give solid interpretations of strong women whose time has come for recognition; and young Mr. Walker as Tim and Boy Eb gave each character distinct behaviors: if as the adage goes "half of acting is in reacting", Mr. Walker's demeanor was credible, and his in-the-moment reactions to his stage partners so natural that one could believe he was experiencing them for the first time. Bravo!

Scrooge, of course, gets most of our attention. Mr. Givens comes across as an utterly despicable tyrant at the start; he is heartless toward everyone, so his transformation is huge. And he allows the audience to track the changes at signal moments in his journey with the ghosts, even though we all know what's coming. Hats off to Mr. Givens for finding the humanity in the old miser that carries the audience to his ultimate giddy celebration of the true spirit of Christmas.