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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

The Joy of Christmas Has Arrived
for Jersey Theatergoers

Presentations celebrating the joy of the Christmas season currently abound in New Jersey theatres. I have seen three of them this week and hope that you will find my reviews helpful. With best wishes for a Merry Christmas and happy holiday season.

*****

A Christmas Carol
John Christopher Jones
as Scrooge

The big theatrical crowd pleaser of the holiday season is the joyful, festive McCarter Theatre annual presentation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It has the size and feel of the best Broadway family musicals. As adapted by David Thompson, this Christmas Carol considerably brightens the dark despair which permeates the novel with visually stunning, oversized sets, wondrous stage effects, a most impressive Ghost of Christmas Future, joyous singing, lively dance and incidental music, humor and swift pacing. Although the essential chilling memories and visions which galvanize Scrooge to change his ways are present, this production sidesteps the depths of despair which are plumbed in the novel.

Essentially, this is as it should be in a presentation aimed at families seeking holiday entertainment. This Dickens classic is certainly infused with substance and valuable philosophy. Although it is my view that a little more despair might add resonance and lay the groundwork for a greater catharsis, the McCarter approach works far better than the lugubrious adaptations which I encountered in my youth. It is highly likely that most audiences will find the tone here pitch perfect.

Ming Cho Lee’s oversized, quirky sets provide evocative, witty eye candy and are immensely playable. Jess Goldstein’s costumes are similarly first rate. The songs and dances, by Michael Starobin and Rob Ashford, respectively, provide much pleasure.

John Christopher Jones delivers a funny, bumptious Scrooge. The other principals turn in solid performances with Susan Knight, Daniel Pearce, John Jellison and Aloysius Gigl leading the way. Praise is due to the large ensemble.

A Christmas Carol continues through December 28, 2003 at the McCarter Theatre, 91 University Place, Princeton, NJ 08540; Box Office: 609-258-2787/ online: www.mccarter.org.

A Christmas Carol from the novel by Charles Dickens; adaptation by David Thompson; directed by Michael Unger; choreographed by Rob Ashford; music by Michael Starobin. Featured Cast (in alphabetical order): Jason Bowcutt (Young Ebenezer); Nora Cole (Ghost of Christmas Past); Grace Hsu (Lily/Belle); John Jellison (Mr. Fezziwig); John Christopher Jones (Ebenezer Scrooge); Susan Knight (Mrs. Crachit); James Ludwig (Fred); Doan Ly Fan (Mrs. Bonds); Annie O’Sullivan (Mrs. Fezziwig); Daniel Pearce (Bob Crachit); Susan Pellegrino (Mrs. Dilber); Aloysius Gigl (Marley).

*****

The Shakespeare Theatre (Madison) closes its season with the first return since 1999 of the Jeremy Brooks and Adrian Mitchell adaptation of Dylan Thomas’ prose poem A Child’s Christmas in Wales. Thomas employed his poetic skills to provide a list of seemingly random memories. Thus the adaptors had to provide something in the way of character and narrative in order to theatricalize it. In successfully accomplishing this without doing any violence to the delicate minimalism of the original, they have created a masterwork of their own.

We are taken back to a slower, long ago time and place on a typical Christmas day as known to young Dylan. We meet some town folk, a few friends of Dylan and, most especially, his parents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Set against a cold, bleak winter seascape where mountains almost meet the waves in the town of Swansea on a peninsula of Wales, the warmth of the Yuletide and the bosom of family envelop the stage. I can think of no other work that conveys the joy and spirit of Christmas and family as well.

A Child's Christmas in Wales

As directed by Robert Duke on Michael Schweikardt’s warm and homey set, there is a deep sense that we have been made privy to watching real people in the midst of living their lives. It is akin to the rare feeling conveyed by Richard Neilson in his beautiful stage adaptation of James Joyce’s The Dead (although Wales is as warm as the Joyce work is cold).

There are more than a dozen songs over the course of the evening. They are largely sung by members of the family to entertain themselves and one another. Employing the melodies of Christmas carols, traditional Welsh melodies, and, at least one popular English music hall tune ("Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom-De-Ay") with both original and new lyrics, this music proves to be totally delightful. This is due in no small part to the wonderful chamber orchestra arrangements played gloriously by musical director F. Wade Russo (keyboard), Christina Biamonte (Flute/Piccolo), and Elizabeth Schulze (Viola).

The large ensemble cast is praiseworthy throughout. However, some particularly outstanding performances must be spotlighted. Andy Paterson is a splendid Dylan. He is both believable and delightful, totally avoiding the pitfalls often associated with having an adult portray a child on stage. Bryan Scott Johnson as his father is the linchpin for the “real life” feel of the action. Johnson conveys the warmth and love that often shine through the gruff words and demeanor of hardworking, undemonstrative parents. Darin De Paul (as Uncle Gwyn) proves the most rousing and joyous entertainer in the family.

A Child’s Christmas in Wales continues through December 28, 2003 at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Ave., Madison, NJ 07940. Box Office: 973-408-3278; online: www.shakespearenj.org.

A Child’s Christmas in Wales from the story by Dylan Thomas; adaptation by Jeremy Brooks and Adrian Mitchell; directed by Robert Duke; choreographed by Jennifer Paulson Lee, Featured Cast: Andy Paterson (Dylan Thomas); Sue Brady (Dylan’s Mother); Bryan Scott Johnson (Dylan’s Father); Darin De Paul (Dai Post/Gwyn); Chris Landis (Jim); Alex Back (Jack); Julian Brightman (Tom/Murgatroyd); John FitzGibbon (Park Keeper/Tudyr); Eleanor Glockner (Hannah); Suzanne Houston (Nellie); James Michael Reilly (Glyn/Constable); Erin Lynlee Partin (Glenda); Justine Williams (Brenda); Tina Stafford (Bessie); Melissa Gallagher (Elieri).


Photo by Warren Westura

*****

Maplewood’s What Exit? Theatre Company, which specializes in producing comedies, displays an appropriate sense of humor in the selection of its Christmas presentation. It is the American premiere of the 2002 London farce The Lying Kind by Anthony Neilson. The time is Christmas Eve and two bumbling English bobbies have arrived at the front door of the Connor home to inform the couple inside that their 34 year old daughter Carol has just been killed in an auto accident.

Despite the premise, this is not Joe Orton territory. Author Neilson and company keep it light throughout the course of this lengthy farce, and they do manage to increase the quotient of fun in the second act. There is a bit of scatology here and there and the kind of “ooh, isn’t this naughty?” humor that British audiences find titillating.

Neilson is pretty sloppy about providing the internal logic which makes for quality farce. When early on, Gronya, the dominatrix from the local PAPS (Parents against Pedophile Scum), manhandles the bobbies, there is no logical basis for their permitting this. Later, someone seated behind me whispered, “Why are they hiding the body?” If required, I would not have been able to answer her question. Therefore, unless you are predisposed to enjoy a low brow farce, this play will increase your disdain for the form.

However, for those of us who enjoy farce, The Lying Kind offers a rare and enjoyable opportunity to see a new full-bore British farce. Where else have we had this opportunity in recent memory? It is really refreshing to see a modern day farce that isn’t Noises Off. It has been a long time since Ray Cooney has been in residence at Paper Mill, or since a classic farce has had a major revival in the metropolitan area. Would you not drink some palatable New York State bubbly if real Champagne were not available?

The feisty little What Next? Theatre Company is certainly not lacking in bravery. There is nothing more demanding than farce, and, while the performance could be crisper, under the guidance of director Bell Wesel the entire cast is game and admirable. Bev Sheehan is properly scary as the PAPS scold. Ames Adamson and Steve Ahern are amusing as the dumb and dumber bobbies. Noreen Farley is very good as the batty Mrs. Connor.

Best of all is the set design of Fred Kinney. The house in question slopes down precipitously to the right on top of a sidewalk which slopes precipitously down to the left. It is detailed and its clashing wallpapers match the ditziness of its owners and all of the evenings intruders who keep us reasonably well amused.

The Lying Kind continues through December 21 at the What Exit? Theatre Company at the Burgdorff Cultural Center, 10 Durand Rd., Maplewood, NJ 07040. Box Office: 973-763-4029

The Lying Kind by Anthony Neilson; directed by Bell Wesel. Cast: Steve Ahern (Blunt); Ames Adamson (Gobbel); Bev Sheehan (Gronya); Noreen Farley (Garson); Burt Edwards (Balthazar); Rick Delaney (Reverend Shandy); Marly Bewighouse (Carol).


Be sure to Check the current schedule for theatre in New Jersey


-
Bob Rendell



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