Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
A Christmas Carol
The new Christmas Carol set, designed by Wilson Chin and lit by Jaymi Lee Smith, takes advantage of the numerous bells and whistles provided by the new theater. Playgoers are welcomed to the production by a scrim curtain with a ghostly outline of the London skyline and the show's title in a classic Old English type font. That lifts to reveal a busy Victorian street (new costumes by Bill Black) where everyone joyously carols "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear." A series of actors are spotlighted for quick monologues to introduce the familiar story: "Marley was dead: to begin with." Then Scrooge (Andrew May) cuts through the crowd, scowling, humbugging, and silencing their celebration. That's followed by a quick transition to Scrooge's counting house as tall windows and a weathered sign, "Scrooge-and-Marley," fly in, and desks for Scrooge and Bob Cratchit (Ryan Gilreath) glide into place.
The events of the story are familiar to most everyone, but the new theater's features enable them to flow swiftly in an almost dreamlike manner. May's Scrooge is downright histrionic in his fury about time wasted in annual celebration until the shrieking, clanking ghost of Marley (Jefferson A. Russell) leaps from his bed's headboard to set Scrooge's overnight lessons in motion.
The beautiful Ghost of Christmas Past (Maggie Lou Rader) arrives on a sleigh trailed by a flock of snow-white doves, skillfully operated puppets handled by a set of black-clad actors. Scrooge, in his nightshirt and cap, wanders through the recalled scenes of his youth, especially a festive Christmas party hosted by his boyhood employers, the outrageously flirtatious Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig (Ken Early and Burgess Byrd). Following intermission, we meet the expansive Ghost of Christmas Present (Early again) and visit the Cratchit family's Christmas dinner and meet Tiny Tim (Zane Kramer with brilliant red hair). Then it's time for the very scary Ghost of Christmas Future, a 12-foot tall phantom puppet with a dark face and skeletal hands.
Many of the actors' names listed here will be familiar to regular Cincinnati theatregoers: Robison has almost entirely cast local performers often seen onstage at Cincinnati Shakespeare, Ensemble Theatre, and Know Theatre. Only antic Gilreath and Cincy Shakes veteran Kelly Mengelkoch have returned back to play their past Christmas Carol characters as the loving Cratchit parents, and it's good to see them. Everyone in the cast is busy from start to finish because most of them, including Early, Gilreath and Mengelkoch, play multiple roles and are on and off the Rouse stage in different costumes.
As Scrooge, Andrew May begins the evening in a most curmudgeonly and viciously angry manner, making it hard to imagine how he could possibly be reformed. (May was the renowned detective Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express in the Playhouse's previous season.) He often peers at the action from atop a roll-around staircase, backed by a giant clockface that represents the rapid passage of time. But when he awakens on Christmas morning he is downright giddy and goofy in a way that sets the audience to giggling right along with him. It's an abrupt, even startling shift, but May plays it convincingly.
Robison's adaptation runs slightly less than two hours (it's a perfect production for families with young children), even with a few less familiar story elements from Dickens, including a pair of miners singing "O, Come All Ye Faithful"; a scene of Belle, young Scrooge's fiancée, who has moved on to have a happy family; and a stream of bedraggled refugees who surely need some of the benevolence that Scrooge has withheld in the past. These moments add texture and depth to the story.
Many familiar Christmas carols are sung throughout this Christmas Carol, a pleasant addition and a sonic reminder of the season. More than simply an expected holiday event, Robison's production is a showcase of local talent, a demonstration of the possibilities of the Playhouse's new mainstage, and a welcome addition that's likely to become part of Cincinnati's holiday traditions for years to come. No humbug–just joy to the world!
A Christmas Carol runs through December 30, 2023, at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, 962 Mt. Adams Circle in Eden Park, adjacent to Mt. Adams, Cincinnati OH. For tickets and information, please visit cincyplay.com or call 513-421-3888