Along with their flawless Velveteen Rabbit, Leslie Bricusse’s Scrooge! is one of the pieces that Children’s Theatre of Charlotte does best – but not as often. The story of the ragged rabbit doll that aspires to be real has been revived three times already in the new millennium, twice at their beautiful new ImaginOn facility. But when Scrooge! was last staged in Charlotte back in 2003, the pioneering complex that Children’s Theatre shares with the county’s ultra modern children’s library was still two years away from its grand opening. Predictably, the 2010 edition looks – and sounds – much different than it did at Spirit Square seven years ago. For the McColl Theatre, the larger of the two theaters at ImaginOn, not only provides a greatly enhanced level of technical sophistication for Ebenezer’s nocturnal visitations; it also accommodates an eight-piece orchestra – in an orchestra pit – with room to spare.
The Bricusse score, written originally for the 1970 screen version starring Albert Finney, was nominated for an Oscar and contains some winsome tunes, including “I Hate Christmas,” “December the 25th,” and its mega-production number, “Thank You Very Much.” Unfortunately, the film was determined to flood its musicalization of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol with merry sunshine. The comedy rehab is most dubious in the “Thank You Very Much” extravaganza, where Scrooge believes that the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come is showing him how adored he will be by multitudes of Londoners. Only we see that the honest working folk are actually thanking Scrooge for dying – and that the platform Scrooge gleefully dances upon is his own coffin.
While Bricusse didn’t dispel the levity in his 1992 stage version, he did provide more chastening counterweights – and these come off more effectively under the direction of Craig Kolkebeck than they did in the previous Children’s Theatre production, which probably didn’t boast the same lavish 85-minute running time. True, the sight of his own glowing tomb remains a punchless rebuke when Scrooge never recognizes that a whole neighborhood has turned his death into a holiday. But aside from the impact of contemplating Tiny Tim’s grave, Scrooge is taken to the underworld, where old Jacob Marley cackles maniacally as his former partner is outfitted for a chain that dwarfs his own.
Mark Sutton manages to make Scrooge’s crooked path to contrition seem almost elegant, and his temperament is nicely attuned to this Ebenezer’s mixture of curt meanness and sly mischief. Sutton growls his grumpy songs and chortles his redeemed ones rather than singing them, humanizing the miser and collapsing the distance between him and the audience. James Dracy as the Ghost of Christmas Present and Dennis Delamar as Marley take a similarly dramatic, non-operatic approach. Kolkebeck hasn’t totally banned songbirds in his casting, for he has chosen Susan Roberts Knowlson as the Ghost of Christmas Past, and her benign warbling – not to mention her glittery, chaste costume – evokes the Good Witch of the North.
Bob Croghan surpasses himself in his costume and scenic designs. A toy shop at one wing of the stage and a butcher shop at the other enlarge the grand cityscape, while two of the buildings upstage open up like storybooks to become Scrooge’s austere office and his creepy two-storey home. Technical director Andrew Gibbon has Marley rising up from beneath the stage, shrouded in fog, to warn Scrooge of his spectral visitors, but the fog machine was not so beneficent when Marley reappeared in the netherworld. Black light effects were the Achilles’ heel of David M. Fillmore’s otherwise outstanding design, but props by Peter Smeal, make-up and wigs by Barbi VanSchaick, choreography by Ron Chisholm, and music direction by Drina Keen are all spot-on. Van Coble’s sound effects and audio engineering are perfectly polished down to the last body mic.
The cast is satisfyingly deep in the minor and ephemeral roles – as it should be for a theater company whose facilities, staff, and educational programs are the best in Charlotte. Jon Parker Douglas as Bob Crachit and the cleverly deployed Erik D’Esterre as soup peddler Tom Jenkins have both starred on the big stage at ImaginOn earlier this year, and Chad Calvert makes a notable Charlotte musical debut as Fezziwig – after stage directing numerous Opera Carolina productions in recent years. If a warm family theater experience is your idea of the perfect holiday celebration, Children’s Theatre’s Scrooge! is the best of the season.
This show continues through 12/23. For details, see our calendar.