By John Dwyer
Though many are familiar with “A Christmas Carol” (music by Alan Menken; lyrics by Lynn Ahrens), I’ve stayed away from it over time.
Boy, was I wrong!
It is delightful family fare, and my snobbery was due to its premier at the 5,500-seat Paramount Theater in Madison Garden. To play in such a behemoth for me suggested commerce over quality. Snobbishly, I felt the venue also spoke to the material, and was strictly a grab for the dollar of families coming in from out of town, and not New Yorkers, like Radio City Music Hall. I refused to watch Kelsey Grammer on television, as well. He could never stand up to Reginal Owen, Alastair Sim or Mr. Magoo. I still don’t know how Kelsey Grammer did, but I can tell you that David Whiteman as Scrooge in Music Mountain Theatre’s production is superb as directed by the very talented team of Jordan Brennan and Louis Palena.
There is so much to recommend. The music is wonderful with big production numbers scattered throughout. Brennan and Palena have managed a cast of over 60, which is no small task as you choreograph movement, let alone dancing. I know David Whiteman, and saw him do a marvelous job as the father last month in “Hairspray,” but was not prepared for the nuanced performance he gave us as Scrooge. He is amazing. Going from a stiff miserable wretch, wisked away in his nightgown through the spirit world to be transformed into a man of joy. This story of redemption is only possible if its centerpiece is strong. Whiteman is magical in his transformations.
The story ingeniously has Scrooge coming home from begrudgingly giving Bob Cratchit (Louis Palena) the day off for Christmas. During that moment, he passes a lamplighter — a sandwich board man advertising a pantomime and a blind old woman. He is dismissive of them all. These, however, are the ones who come back to haunt Ebenezer in his dreams as Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Future respectively.
His dreams of who he was, is and will be are ushered in by a visit from his old business partner, Jacob Marley. David McCloughan Jr. is Marley, a character often overshadowed by the grander concept of Christmas ghosts and other details. In this adaptation (book by Lynn Ahrens and Mike Ockrent), Marley is fleshed out, not just as Scrooge’s business partner, but as his only friend. The compelling song and intricately choreographed, “Link by Link” is the set up and overview of Scrooge’s transgressions. McCloughan is not just a good singer, but a great one and he is mesmerizing. He is the ringleader of ghastly apparitions portending what may be this miser’s destiny. Eleven dancers whirling through the stage and Scrooge’s mind, as Marley masterly weaves them around the stage.
It is difficult to tell an old story that everyone knows and to make it new and fresh. But with extraordinary performances, excellent choreography and direction, the audience was thrilling to this marvelous tale. With each spectral vistitation, the audience is rewarded with a marvelous musical number. The first ghost of Christmas Past (Jill Palena) reminds Ebenezer of his loving mother and the love of his life, Emily, and how wonderful it was to work for Mr. Fezziwig, a generous and loving employer. Morgan Tarrant and Tristan Tackacs are captivatingly charming as Emily and the Young Scrooge. At Fezziwig’s, there is a lavishly choreographed ensemble dance number during the song, “Mr. Fezziwig’s Annual Christmas Ball.” The number is joyous, high energy and filled with that spirit that only youth, holidays and little too much eggnog can bring — a very well-designed, well-executed piece of ensemble dancing.
But then it only gets better. The Ghost of Christmas Present (Tim Chastain) arrives. In an expanded song and dance celebrating the greatest virtue — love — our ghost leads a leggy chorus in the number “Abundance and Charity.” The excellent tap piece leads to the expected kick line and an audience grinning from ear to ear over the Victorian Rockettes.
Throughout the show, there are songs of good will. Special mention in that vein to the sweet, lyrical “There’s a Place Called Home, “ sung earlier by Scrooge at 12 (Aidan McLendon) and his sister, Fran (Caroline May), and frequently covered by varied artists due to its message and beautiful melody.
The Ghost of Christmas Future appears silently and is seen as two spirits, one a shriveled, decayed old woman and another who dances a spectral ballet. The choreography again is as on point as the marvelous Sharon Rudda, during the piece, is en pointe. And the song and dance during “Dancing on Your Grave” is mesmerizing. The percussive melody, the lyrics, singing, and dancing bring this production toward the well-known ending.
This family show with “Good Will Toward Men” warms the heart. With songs of “Christmas Together” and “God Bless Us Everyone”” barreling toward the finale, the entire stage is a panorama of the Cratchit home, and the city of London, along with nephew Fred’s house. The directors know how to fill a stage with different levels, old and young — but most of all, filled with family and the spirit of Christmas. You would have to be Scrooge not to love this show.
Tickets are available online.