Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Also see Gil's recent review of POTUS
The plot, in case you need a refresher, follows the curmudgeonly Ebenezer Scrooge as he is visited by the ghosts of his former business partner Jacob Marley and those of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. As the spirits guide Scrooge through poignant moments of his life, he is forced to confront his own greed, his shortcomings, and the unkind nature he has with others and rediscover the true meaning of Christmas. It's a tale that has resonated for generations and a timeless reminder of redemption and the transformative power of compassion.
Director Matt August worked with Bricusse on this updated stage version that's based on the film and the previous theatrical version of the movie. August helmed the successful Broadway production of another classic Christmas tale, Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and after Bricusse passed away in 2021 he continued working on this updated stage version with Bricusse's estate. While the film stuck fairly close to Dickens' story, it did make some odd changes to familiar character names that were changed for no apparent reason–Scrooge's nephew is now called Harry instead of Fred, and the woman he was engaged to is now Isabel and not Belle, which are, unfortunately, carried over here. In August's adaptation which is based on Bricusse's rewritten screenplay for the stage, the ghosts are almost all changed as well but none of the changes really adds anything to the story; Marley's chains that tied him down in the novel are now pieces of fabric that have become a large, heavy robe; the usually playful Christmas Past is now more of a spider like woman; and Christmas Future has an odd white muscular shield over his torso and not the usual all black clad creature that is very distracting. Dickens' purists will wonder why these changes were necessary as none are additive to the story.
August has bookended the production with brief modern scenes of children and young adults peering into a toy children's theatre that has the same set design that we'll see full scale when the youngsters are pulled into the story. While that is an intriguing way to bridge the past to the present and attempt to make the story more relevant, it isn't fleshed out in any way to truly make it resonate. Once the kids are brought into the play, they just become background characters with nothing of value added. Perhaps it would have been more impactful if one of the modern characters we saw was an older man who was mistreating others that is then brought back in time into the story and becomes Scrooge so that he can learn from his mistakes.
While the set design from Jason Ardizzone-West is gorgeous, with black and white frames set inside each other that create the feeling of a large toy theatre with excellent projections from Brad Peterson that are eerie and imaginative and evocative lighting from Paul Miller, the costumes from Elizabeth Caitlin Ward are particularly garish for the ensemble, with shades of blue, lime green, and yellow that don't appear to resemble anything period appropriate. Fortunately, the designs for Scrooge and the supporting characters are quite good. The music direction from Alan J. Plado is good, with strong singing from the large cast, but the orchestrations sound quite tinny and slight played by the six-piece orchestra.
This production is fortunate to have Tony winning actor Shuler Hensley playing the challenging role of Ebenezer Scrooge. Hensley delivers a performance that allows us to see the nuances of Scrooge's character and his journey from miserly curmudgeon to redeemed benefactor is navigated with a sincerity that, while not truly reaching profound depths, remains engaging. Hensley's strong performance also allows the audience to empathize with Scrooge's transformation.
The cast are all quite good, with Stewart Gregory, Karmine Alers, and Geoffrey F. Belliston providing clear and strong vocals as Marley, Christmas Present, and Christmas Past, respectively. Chris Will is endearing as the overworked and underpaid Bob Cratchit; Danny Bass is bright and charming as both the Young Scrooge and Scrooge's Nephew; Beni Bermudez is appealing as Tiny Tim; and Tony Castellanos and Trisha Ditsworth are joyous and fun as the Fezziwigs. Also, Aaron Cammack energetically delivers the one catchy tune in the score, "Thank You Very Much." Spencer Liff's choreography for that song and the other ensemble numbers is bright and fun.
ATC has said that they plan for this production to be an annual holiday presentation and in August's program notes he mentions that some aspects of the production will be completed next year. I'm not certain what aspects will be augmented or changed, but if they are able to clarify and correct some of the shortcomings in this current production that would be a major plus.
Arizona Theatre Company Theatre's Scrooge! runs through December 30, 2023, at the Tempe Center for the Arts, 700 W. Rio Salado Parkway, Mesa AZ. For tickets and information, please visit www.arizonatheatre.org or 833-282 7328.
Book, Music and Lyrics: Leslie Bricusse
*Member, Actors' Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States