A Christmas Carol
Book by Mike Ockrent and Lynn Ahrens
Music by Allen Menken . Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Directed by Daniel L. McDonald
Produced by Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Baltimore
Reviewed by Leslie Weisman
Toby’s Dinner Theatre is a place where the show may be the main reason you’re there, but it’s usually not the only one. Known not only for its ability to bring Broadway to Baltimore but for its all-you-can eat buffet as well, Toby’s generally succeeds on both counts. Its enthusiastic incarnations of beloved blockbusters more often than not will leave you feeling warm and satisfied theatrically as you indulge yourself gastronomically.
Such is the case with Toby’s current production, the musical version of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.” The Madison Square Garden hit of 1994 is making its area premiere in Baltimore, with a local cast that largely does credit to the classic tale. We begin as a portly and mustachioed emcee (Andrew Horn, who also plays Marley) grandly welcomes the audience in 19th-century black tailcoat, vest, and grey slacks. He will break character – or at least time period – to congratulate audience members on their birthdays, making it seem almost a family affair. And yet this, too, is true to the story of a family whose penurious circumstances and unfailing love and support for each other will be the fulcrum from which the tale is launched.
Toby’s is also a place where the close-enough-to-touch phenomenon that used to be a thrilling theatrical rarity is here enhanced by its incongruity. Not only are we watching a show, but we’re seated at dinner tables, where we’ve just ingested enough food to feed all of London. And the actors who will ringingly bring the familiar tale to musical life up there on the stage are the same folks who politely just took your order – dressed appropriately in waiter’s garb – and smilingly brought you your drinks.
Toby’s production effectively pays homage to the 19th– and 20th-century forms (book, film, musical) which this timeless tale has taken over the years. Its characters are larger than life, yet wholly human. David Bosley-Reynolds’s Scrooge moves from nasty, small-minded, callously penny-pinching miser (his vicious “The whole world be damned. It has nothing to do with me” sends chills up and down the spine), to terrified sinner who fears the clearly deserved justice that awaits him, to a joyous, almost innocently childlike glee and relief as he realizes that he still has the chance to change – and to change the lives of those whose lives he has blighted.
John Morrison as Tiny Tim is a natural, seeming to have been born on the stage and playing the legendary “crippled boy” with an impressively convincing limp and a sweet and gentle gracefulness (he also plays Scrooge at 10); David Jennings, as Scrooge at 21, evokes the young up-and-comer with a striking combination of the Scrooge who will be – selfish, ruthless, ambitious, cherishing nothing more than his business – Bosley-Reynolds’s “Nothing to Do With Me” is filled with biting venom – with the Scrooge who still is, heartbroken at the loss of his beloved. His demeanor at this point is matched by that of Katie Keyser’s Emily, who seems to have been plucked out of a British film of the 1930s, her quiet, glowing beauty and hushed sadness complemented by a lovely singing voice. Scrooge’s venom is later matched by the chorus of townspeople whose “Dancing on Your Grave” is shouted out with coldly passionate fury in response to his condescending contempt and selfishness.
The score, with music by the celebrated Alan Mencken, is Broadway-brilliant, and the actors do a yeoman’s job of aligning the sometimes challenging vocal line with their characters’ inner motivations to create a larger dramatic truth. The chorus, too, deserves special mention. In one especially memorable spot, it manages to be both both glorious and hilarious as it joins with Horn’s Marley in a menacing, boot-thumping “Link by Link,” sending Scrooge into paroxysms of paranoia as he contemplates the terrifying hereafter that awaits him.
The lighting and sets (kudos to Lynn Joslin and David A. Hopkins) and costumes (Lawrence B. Munsey and Samn Huffer) shift effortlessly from the theatrical to the cinematic, embracing the two key media in which Christmas Carol has become known to modern audiences, with a tip of the hat to the digital age. The festivities of the firm’s annual Christmas ball are lushly colorful, with a musical richness and vivacity (“Mister Fezziwig’s Annual Christmas Ball”) that makes you want to run up on the stage and join them.
On the other side of the divide, Scrooge’s sepulchral, white-gray-and blue-tinged vision of the undead lacks only Boris Karloff (although a couple of its denizens do a frighteningly good imitation), and is made even more haunting by the technical wizardry that creates a high-voltage backdrop of slashing, yet eerily pale colors. And his astonishment at the Chorus Line-like line of sparkle-clad choristers brings home how completely out of his element he is. The contrast of this with the scene set by the final spirit is sharp and swift: Her words, and their wintry setting of dark shadows over a barren landscape covering smoke-belching chimneys atop shacks surrounded by leafless trees, fill him with dread. (Curiously, she is clothed in deep rose.) The incongruity could not be more striking.
Not everything works. The volume is at times deafeningly loud – which would work just fine in Madison Square Garden. Unfortunately, for a dinner theatre, it’s earplug time, something you really don’t want to do with such an emotional, soaring, melodic score. It also detracts from the affective immediacy of the show, and from the intimacy of Toby’s stage. So, while this may not be a Christmas Carol for the ages, it’s certainly one for ours: early 21st century, not having fully emerged from the 20th, feeling our way toward the future, yet not quite able – or willing – to let go of the past. And maybe that is where we should be. “God bless us, every one!”
Running Time: 1 hr. 45 min. (one intermission)
When: Nov 28, 2008 – Jan 4, 2009: Tues-Sat at 8:00 (doors open at 6:00 for buffet), Sund at 7:00 (doors open at 5:00), Thurs & Sun matinee brunch at 12:30 (doors open at 10:30)
Where: 5625 O’Donnell Street (in Best Western Hotel and Conference Center), Baltimore, MD
Tickets: $48.50 – $54.00 (children 12 and under: $34.50 – &54.00) includes buffet. Call 800 888-6297 or visit the website.
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