Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Again, you may have guessed, as rouge conjures up the image of a brightly reddened face, and in excess, often associated with bawdy theatricals (or other bawdy affairs, but let's stick to the theatricals), that Scrooge in Rouge takes some playful liberties with the propriety or gender designations (or both) of Dickens's original work. The answer is both, and it is all for the good, at least if what you are seeking is a performance full of delightful silliness, non-stop jokes, double entendres, malapropisms, and sight gags–and an outpouring of imagination applied to performances and stagecraft.
Scrooge in Rouge first appeared in 2007 in New Orleans at a spot called Le Chat Noir, a cabaret-like venue that must have been perfect for Scrooge in Rouge. The intimate space at Open Eye provides an ideal home for the show in the Twin Cities. Ricky Graham wrote the book and the lyrics, with Jeffrey Robinson contributing additional material, Yvette Hargis is credited for providing "other interesting bits," and Jefferson Turner composed the show's original music. As those credits suggest, there seems to have been a large measure of playfulness on hand at the creation of the piece, and that playful spirit has been captured and unleashed in full force by Open Eye's producing artistic director, Joel Sass, whose advice to the game cast of Scrooge in Rouge was undoubtedly: "Don't hold back!.
The conceit is that a 19th century English music hall has devised its rendition of what would have been the then recently released work by the best-selling author Charles Dickens. A Christmas Carol was published in 1843 and (our friends at Wikipedia tell us) the English music hall emerged as a popular entertainment beginning in 1850, so the timing is perfect, historically speaking. After a special appearance by Queen Victoria herself, and a jaunty welcoming song and dance number, we are told that an accomplished company of twenty players had been secured to tell the story of Mr. Scrooge's wondrous transformation. Why, then, are there only three players on stage? Unfortunately, seventeen of their number were stricken by food poisoning following a cast supper served the previous night and are unable to appear. But, pip, pip, the show must go on, and all that–and so the three who managed to avoid the dinner debacle will simply play all the roles. What could be simpler?
The result is, as you would expect, near mayhem, but controlled enough to keep the semblance of the narrative intact, and–with rapidly paced exits, entrances, and changes of wigs and costumes– it moves at a galloping pace that barely stops to catch its breath, much to our delight. The first act gets us through this explanatory information, then the first scenes of A Christmas Carol, one set in Scrooge's office where Scrooge deals with his impoverished clerk, Bob Cratchit, his nephew Fred, and a solicitor of charity for the poor, and then on to Scrooge's bed chamber where Marley's ghost pays a call, closing with a visit from the Ghost of Christmas Past. The second act welcomes us back from intermission, with hearty thanks for spending liberally at the bar so that the players can at last be paid, singing "Your intoxication pays for our vacation." This gives the threesome liberty to launch into a delightfully daft beach number before moving on through the rest of the play: two more ghostly visits and the heartwarming, and in this case, rambunctious, conclusion.
The play's casting instructions indicate that the gender of the three actors on stage makes no difference, as they each ends up playing both male and female character before the night is through. In Open Eye's production, Maren Ward plays Vesta Virile, listed as a "male impersonator," and indeed she plays the male role of Ebenezer Scrooge, onstage for almost the entirety of the show, though she does have a go at a role called Gladys, a character Dickens never thought to include. Neal Skoy plays an earnest character actor named Charles Schmaltz who, in the course of the show, takes the parts of Bob Cratchit, Fred, Marley's Ghost, Ghost of Christmas Past, Mrs. Fezziwig, the devil (also not in Dickens's version), and a housekeeper. Abilene Olson is soubrette Lottie Obbligato, who fancies herself a red-hot mama, and picks up all the remaining parts.
Skoy and Olson are both inspired clowns who bring their actor alter-egos to life and then whip out the array of characters with dazzling brio. In this they are greatly abetted by Kathy Kohl's inventive costumes, which allow for rapid-fire transformations. Because Ward remains in the role of Scrooge for most of the show–when she is not portraying actor Vesta virile–and Scrooge is such a dour character, there are fewer opportunities for her to exhibit zaniness, but instead she often serves as the "straight man" to the comedic efforts of her castmates.
There is an all important fourth cast member, Patrick Adkins, who plays piano accompanist Alfred Da Cappo. The piano is set just to the left of the stage, with Adkins visible throughout, and he plays almost continuously, either the songs by Graham and Turner–nothing memorable, but devised to pump up the rabid energy of the whole enterprise–along with underscoring between songs. There is also a fifth performer, one recruited from the audience for an all-important role, though the script is worked out to mercifully require the game volunteer to speak only one line.
There is a bit of music-hall style dancing, choreographed by Heidi Spesard-Noble, that adds momentum to the show, which the cast–and Neal Skoy in particular–execute with the same wit and abandon that marks the entire work. Michael Sommer's set design is a beautiful rendition of a Victorian music hall, with faded-looking Grecian goddesses painted on either side of the proscenium, which is decked out in Christmas bunting. Given the small stage at Open Eye, inventive gambits are used to establish scenes, such as the Ghost of Christmas past having Scrooge peer into a snow globe in which he sees the settings of his early years–rather than haul in full blown set pieces, created at great expense, as some theaters I could name are wont to do.
Don't misunderstand, I would never suggest that the big-budget, beautifully mounted, full-blown A Christmas Carol across town isn't worth every penny. But this alternative, which replaces those trappings with an appeal to the audience's imagination, accomplishes other ends. This includes hearty laughter at the script, but also to laugh at our deep collective knowledge of the original source, and our ability to recognize it in this delightfully bastardized rendition which, though it takes great liberties to keep us amused, never disrespects the spirit of Dickens's work. It leaves the audience with well-exercised laugh muscles along with Dickens's message of redemption intact.
Scrooge in Rouge runs through December 30, 2023, at Open Eye Theatre, 506 East 24th Street, Minneapolis MN. For tickets and information, please visit openeyetheatre.org or call 612-874-6368.
Book and Lyrics: Ricky Graham; Additional Material: Jeffrey Roberson; Other Interesting Bits: Yvette Hargis; Original Music: Jefferson Turner; Director: Joel Sass; Music Director: Jake Endres; Choreography: Heidi Spesard-Noble; Set Design: Michael Sommer; Costume Design: Kathy Kohl; Lighting Design: Bill Healey; Sound Engineer: Dan Dukich; Dialect Coach: Patrick Bailey; Technical Director: Brandon Sisneroz; Stage Manager: Brian Hirt; Assistant Stage Manager: Evelyn Kelly.
Cast: Patrick Adkins (Alfred Da Cappo, the accompanist), Abilene Olson (Lottie Obbligato (a singing soubrette), Neal Skoy (Charlie Schmaltz, a character actor), Maren Ward (Vesta Virile, a "male impersonator").