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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

"Yes!": A Christmas Carol
The Alan Menken-Lynn Ahrens-Mike Ockrent Musical

As it did for the first time with its production of Lionel Bart's Oliver! last December, the Centenary Stage Company has turned the Menken-Ahrens-Ockrent musical A Christmas Carol into a community extravaganza by augmenting its Equity cast members with faculty and staff from Centenary College (most have professional stage, dance and music backgrounds), students from the college (largely theatre majors), community members, and more than two dozen youngsters from the Young Performers Workshop program of Centenary Stage to form an admirable 65 member cast.

A Christmas Carol
"Mr. Fezziwig's Annual Christmas Ball"

Improving considerably on last season's admirable and very enjoyable Oliver!, Centenary Stage gives us a totally delightful A Christmas Carol in which every element contributes to the joy of the occasion. There are enumerable performers and production creatives to credit and I will cite several. However, anyone who escapes specific mention here, must be assured that all who have contributed to this production should be proud of their efforts.

Multi-talented theatre veteran Michael Blevins is the Centenary treasure whose extraordinary direction, choreography, and sheer dedication is clearly the driving force behind the excellence of this production. Blevins serves as director of Centenary's Young Performers Workshop. His work is excellent throughout. It is best exemplified by the extraordinary production number for "Mr. Fezziwig's Annual Christmas Ball". This is an extended production dance number in which the lively, imaginative, and relatively complex choreography repeatedly evolves and develops. Ten of the 27 dancers employed are members of the Young Performers Workshop, some of the others are theatre students, and some are young professionals. The degree of precision of this eclectic dancing ensemble, the choreographic imagination on display, and the sheer high stepping enthusiasm are a delight to behold. The amount of time, talent and dedication that Michael Blevins must have lavished on this single dance alone is simply awesome.

A dancing standout is Saquan Williams, whose lithe stylishness and powerful steps suggest that he is a young performer of limitless potential. McKenzie Custin (Emily) and Emilio Tirri (Young Ebenezer) make a most handsome and credible couple as they beautifully sing the lovely "A Place Called Home," making the subsequent dissolution of their engagement all the more moving. Andrew Nussbaum as Tiny Tim, James Nestor as Bob Cratchit, and Alycia Kunkle as Mrs. Cratchit convey filial affection as they delightfully, joyfully lead off the charming and upbeat "Christmas Together."

This musical A Christmas Carol is an American version of an English pantomime. Thus, it features richly entertaining, jaunty old time vaudeville music style songs. The first, "Link by Link," is nimbly delivered by Dave Scheffler as Jacob Marley. Steven Bidwell as the Ghost of Christmas Present makes the most of one such number, "Abundance and Charity." This number is more Busby Berkeley than Dickens, but no less entertaining for being so. Lea Antolini makes a strong, solid impression as the Ghost of Christmas Past, leading Scrooge back into his childhood as she sings the evocative "The Lights of Long Ago."

Osborn Focht as Scrooge and his musical authors manage not to get Scrooge lost amid all these riches by providing him with melodic and dramatic musical showpieces, from the misanthropic "Nothing to Do With Me" through an expression of his new found philanthropy with "Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow." However, a more dramatic, less pantomime-like interpretation of Scrooge would provide a stronger anchor for the wonderful extravaganza in which Dickens' morality tale has been so entertainingly dressed.

This production is furthered enhanced by the work of Musical Director Kevin Lynch, Set designer Jordan Janota and Lighting Designer Ed Matthews.

Each Christmas season for a decade, beginning in 1994, the musical version of A Christmas Carol written by Alan Menken (music), Lynn Ahrens (lyrics and book) and Mike Ockrent (book), originally directed by Ockrent and choreographed by Susan Stroman, took on the unenviable, thankless task of conveying the joys of a Broadway musical in the oddly shaped and cavernous space of what is now known as the 5,600 seat Theatre at Madison Square Garden (upon arriving at my seat, I found it difficult to determine the location of the stage). The gargantuan sets, the glitzy costumes, makeup and lighting, the wide stage area with its low slung proscenium, and the distance from the stage of my "bleacher seats" reduced the actors to tiny distant figures in a flattened, overly extended landscape. Add a blaring sound system which distorted the score and disembodied the lyrics and dialogue from the actors (repeatedly, one had to search the stage to locate the actor whose voice was coming at you from an overhead speaker). Despite its return for a decade of holiday seasons, the result was a production which inevitably led the musical itself to be underrated. Freed from the impossible burdens imposed by its original venue, it is now apparent that The Menken-Ahrens-Ockrent A Christmas Carol is soaring, delightful musical theatre with a treasure house of beautiful, evocative music.

The ninety-minute one-act format created for its MSG staging truncates the Christmas future and redemptive Christmas morning happenings, making one wish that Menken and Ahrens (Mike Ockrent is sadly no longer with us) would expand their creation into a full-length two-act musical. How wonderful it would be if Menken could return to the Paper Mill Playhouse where he just launched Newsies for such a project.

For now, as mounted by the Centenary Stage Company, A Christmas Carol is as delightful a family entertainment as anyone could hope to find. I happily exited Centenary singing this lyric from the beautiful musical coda effectively employed throughout the score:

Let the stars in the sky
Remind us of man's compassion
Let us love till we die
And G-d bless us everyone.

G-d bless us everyone.

A Christmas Carol - The Musical continues performances (Evenings: Thursday 7:30 PM/ Friday and Saturday 8 PM/ Sunday 2 PM through December 11, 2011, at Centenary Stage Company (Sitnik Theatre) through October 16 at the Lackland Center on the campus of Centenary College, 400 Jefferson Avenue, Hackettstown, New Jersey 07840. Box Office: 908-9794297; online: www.centenarystageco.org.

A Christmas Carol - The Musical based on the story by Charles Dickens; Music by Alan Menken ; Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens; Book by Ahrens and Mike Ockrent; directed by Michael Blevins

Cast (partial)
Beadle................................................................................Carl Wallnau
Scrooge.............................................................................Osborn Focht
Bob Cratchit......................................................................James Nester
Martha Cratchit......................................................Suzannah Nussbaum
Mrs. Cratchit......................................................................Alycia Kunkle
Tiny Tim.....................................................................Andrew Nussbaum
Fred Anderson.....................................................................Alex Maxwell
Jonathan..............................................................................Anthony Zas
Ghost Christmas Present..................................................Steven Bidwell
Ghost Christmas Past............................................................Lea Antolini
Ghost Christmas Future........................................................Sarah Lichty
Marley...............................................................................Dave Scheffler
Fezziwig................................................................Jeremy William Hilgert
Young Ebenezer......................................................................Emilio Tirri
Young Marley...............................................................Kyle Dylan Connor
Emily..............................................................................McKenzie Custin
Mrs. Fezziwig..............................................................Christine De Frece


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- Bob Rendell



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