Regional Reviews: Los Angeles
A Christmas Carol Story, A Christmas Twist, and
This time of year, small theatres in Los Angeles attack Christmas with a vengeance. Not content with merely presenting Christmas classics, each theatre tries to outdo the others with how different it can make its take on standard holiday theatrical fare.
Hoping to find something novel by heaping tradition on tradition is Sierra Madre Playhouse's production of A Christmas Carol Story, an adaptation of Charles Dickens' classic spiced up with Christmas carols. The concept sounds like a recipe for disaster, but Larry Davison's kid-friendly script really makes it work. The show begins with narration by the adult Timothy Cratchit (all grown up and leaning ever so slightly on a cane), who promises to show us the story of the Christmas miracle that transformed the "meanest, stingiest man in all of London." He sets the scene of a London street full of shoppers awaiting the arrival of Christmas, and the stage then bursts into song, with the entire company singing a traditional Christmas carol. The carols all fit easily into the show (with the exception of an unfortunate "flashback" carol the adult Timothy Cratchit sings about Christmas when he was a child) and are sung with lovely harmonies and good cheer.
Indeed, one starts looking forward to the carols, as the emphasis in Sierra Madre Playhouse's production is much more on the singing than the acting. The actor playing Scrooge (the program did not identify which of two actors performed at the performance reviewed) stumbled on many of his lines and frequently overplayed his shivering fear at the presence of the spirits. Nearly everyone in the cast affected a clipped upper-crust British accent, regardless of the class of the characters they played. While some - particularly Kirk A. Smith as Fezziwig and Sam Nisbett as Jacob Marley - offered believable characterizations, the bulk of this community theatre company turned in routine performances, with a few simply saying their lines as though reading them for the first time. However, the beautiful carols keep the production moving, and they ultimately make the show a pleasant introduction to the holiday season.
Eschewing anything remotely resembling the warm cinnamon feelings raised by A Christmas Carol Story, The Theater Gang goes in the opposite direction with A Christmas Twist, a sharp-edged comic take on A Christmas Carol. Crossing A Christmas Carol with Oliver Twist, A Christmas Twist follows the story of Tiny Twist, a boy kicked out of an orphanage, apprenticed to Fagin and subsequently adopted by Bob Crachit (the misspelling is theirs). The character of Mr. Bumble also doubles as Scrooge's nephew, and we're off and running. A Christmas Twist is fast and furious, with jokes coming both from mocking the Dickensian tales and from creative references to other source material.
But what is almost surprisingly good about A Christmas Twist is that, in the middle of it all, there's actually a pretty legitimate Christmas Carol. Howard Wilson is very good as Scrooge, presenting an angry, defiant penny-pincher who will not easily be converted by the spirits. And some of the supporting players find a truth in the comedy. Jessie Daniels is a playful, drunk Ghost of Christmas Present - it's supposed to be funny, but it's also right. Why wouldn't the spirit of the holiday in full bloom drink a little too deeply?
The witty script and good acting of A Christmas Twist should come together to create a real winner, but they are sadly brought down by a single major flaw. Tiny Twist is played by an adult, and, according to the script, he may actually be an over-twenty-year-old orphan. Dan Walker does little with the role, but, to be fair, he has nothing to work with. Surrounded by Michael Hill's solid Fagin and Lisa Vachon's equally convincing Artful Annie (trust me), the really tall man in a schoolboy's uniform who tries to speak in a tiny little voice isn't just not funny, it's downright annoying.
Just when you think you can't have a holiday show without the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, in swirls the Orphean Circus with Peace Squad Goes 99 - The Greatest 99¢ Only Story Ever Told ... Ever! This is the latest in a sequence of "99¢ Only" shows, in which the set and costumes are made solely from items purchased at 99¢ Only Stores. The show recounts the tale of the evil Hollow Mirror Man's attempt to take over the 99centonlyvillage - a sweet little town suspiciously like Munchkinland - and how he is thwarted by our heroes, the Peace Squad!
The costumes are everything you'd imagine and more, with the 99centonlyvillage's mayor wearing a top hat made entirely of straws and a corsage of plastic silverware. There are corsets made of packs of multicolored marking pens, strategically-placed oven mitts, tablecloths, shower curtains and unidentifiable (possibly inflatable) plastic things everywhere. The costumes are too bright, too shiny and too colorful, and writer/director/choreographer Ken Roht has ingeniously paired them with a story that's just as shiny and bright. The Peace Squad are the sort of heroes you'd expect on a Sid & Marty Krofft Sunday morning show: the Hollow Mirror Man is the sort of villain who threatens to "scare you till you pee-pee," and the songs range from Korean pop to a rap about the wonders of everything you can buy at a 99¢ Only Store (including Top Ramen: "The best way to eat it is to use a spork!"). It's overblown squeaky-clean enthusiasm to the nth degree - a G-rated version of the West Hollywood Halloween parade.
The Greatest 99¢ Only Story ... isn't perfect. The show relies an awful lot on references to previous 99¢ Only shows. If you haven't seen them, you might feel like you're missing the joke. The Evidence Room's sound system leaves something to be desired; many lyrics are completely lost, leaving you with the impression that there was a good deal of funny stuff you would have enjoyed, had you heard it. But you don't see a show like Peace Squad Goes 99 for the details; it's all about the overkill.
A Christmas Carol Story continues at the Sierra Madre Playhouse in Sierra Madre through December 22, 2004. For tickets and information, see www.sierramadreplayhouse.org.
A Christmas Twist continues at the Fremont Centre Theatre in South Pasadena through December 11, 2004. For tickets and information, see www.stageworkstheaterarts.org.
Peace Squad Goes 99 continues at the Evidence Room in Los Angeles through December 19, 2004. For information, see www.evidenceroom.com.