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Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

A Christmas Carol
Hillbarn Theatre
Review by Eddie Reynolds

The Cast of A Christmas Carol
Photo by Mark and Tracy Photography
Just as ballet companies never cease offering The Nutcracker every December, it's almost a sure-fire guarantee that one or more theatre companies in most cities and towns are going to offer some rendition of A Christmas Carol. This is in light of any number of Scrooges that show up on late-night television channels, with everyone from Alistair Sim to George C. Scott to Mr. Magoo taking on the title role. In 1994, the Paramount Theatre in New York's Madison Square Garden introduced what would become a year-in, year-out musical version of the Charles Dickens 1835 novella (running until 2003), with music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, and book by Ms. Ahrens and Mike Ockrent.

Since that introduction, many theatre companies across the land have staged the musical, including a current production by Hillbarn Theatre of Foster City, a company known for its rousing, inventively produced musicals. Unfortunately, problems abound in this latest offering—many technical and some in the rendering of dance and song—all resulting in a highly energetic, definitely sincere, but surprisingly disappointing outing.

The first notes of the "Overture" by the overall excellent 16-person orchestra under the direction of Rick Reynolds establish the story we are about to witness, with foreboding brass in the foreground almost hiding the more joyous, holiday-hinting woodwinds in the background. As shoppers, venders and carolers bustle past Ebenezer Scrooge on the streets of his neighborhood in London, Ebenezer quickly alerts us to his feelings about this being Christmas Eve. To a "Merry Christmas, sir" from a local banker, he bitterly snarls in one of Dickens' best lines: "Every idiot who goes about with Merry Christmas on his lips should be boiled in his own pudding. And buried with a stake of holly through his heart."

It also certainly does not take Scrooge long to say his first "Christmas is a humbug," one aimed at a little girl whose mother has just died and whose father is asking money-lender Mr. Scrooge for a break on his due mortgage so that he can pay for his wife's funeral. Christopher Reber takes on the role of what is usually portrayed as an aging man, often rather on the ugly side with hanging jowls, scruffy beard, and overall grouchy demeanor. This Scrooge is on the younger side for the role and quite handsome; and although he grumps and shouts, he rarely seems to capture the truly miserly, despicable character that Scrooges usually show. What he does bring is one of the better singing voices of the evening and an ability to sing with clarity of lyrics, and he later begins to have a stronger sense of the Scrooge we expect as he ventures into his various ghost-guided nightmares.

In this production, understanding lyrics is from the start a major issue, along with there being a proper balance of projected sound. Some characters' sung and spoken words blast forward in volumes shockingly loud, while other spoken or sung lines are impossible to hear clearly enough to understand. Even in ensemble pieces—like the opening, merry street scene of "Jolly Good Time"—harmonies of the ensemble are hampered by one or two voices being amplified over the others. This problem persists throughout the production, with some important moments lost due to muffled projections (like the warning to Scrooge of a beggar woman about what might lie in his future).

Other technical and production problems also crop up much too often—some perhaps due to opening night issues that will hopefully be quickly solved, but still too many to be overlooked. Scenery elements of Dan Demers' London rattle as they roll in and out, and more than one bumps into a wall as a character sends it off stage. The overall simple but festive choreography of Jayne Zaban is too much for a couple of the ensemble members, especially one young man who keeps looking like a deer in headlights as he glances toward others for an idea of what to do next. (That especially is true in the much-too-long "Mr. Fezziwig's Annual Christmas Ball," in which the song-and-dance number goes on for many more minutes than deserved.) One ensemble woman keeps fighting not to trip on her long skirt, while some singers (like the actor playing Scrooge's nephew Fred) time and again have difficulty finding and staying on the right key. All together, the issues sum to a production more disappointing by far than the usual Hillbarn fare.

But, as the well-known night progresses through the appearances of ghosts and visits by Scrooge to the past, present and future, some individual performances do raise the bar of excellence to levels expected. As the ghost of Scrooge's deceased partner Jacob Marley, Randy O'Hara sings with a clear, convincing voice while warning, "Unlock your heart, it not too late." But in the "Link by Link" song where Marley appears with skeletal face—dripping of rotting burial rags and burdened by a heavy, ever-lengthening chain—an accompanying chorus of other dead skinflints dance what looks amateurish and almost random lifts of arms and legs and sing, once again, in lines totally missed.

As the Ghost of the Past, Sammi Hildebrandt brings one of the most impressive performances in sung voice of the evening. Portrayed curiously as a kind of bouncy, bubbly sprite in a short-skirted outfit that immediately recalls a cigarette girl in a nightclub, Ms. Hildebrandt brings much energy and heart with a big pinch of Puck to her role, as she ushers a wide-eyed, sometimes misty-eyed Scrooge through scenes of his youth and young adulthood. Included in his memories is the one true love that got away, Emily (Brenna Sammon), leading to a well-delivered duet between the would-be couple whose demise comes after Scrooge and Marley decide "Money galore ... profits, yes, and nothing less" are the truer keys to personal happiness than having a loving wife and, as the couple has already sung, "A Place Called Home."

Dressed delightfully in all sorts of red, ribbon, and snow-white trimming as Mother Christmas—part of the overall outstanding period costume designs of Pamela Lampkin—is Jennifer Martinelli as Ghost of Christmas Present. With a sparkling voice and demeanor of a happy bar maid, she glows as she shows Scrooge current scenes of holiday joy, from the humble home of his long-suffering employee Bob Crachit, to that of his more well-to-do nephew Fred.

Throughout the evening, Carson Duper reigns supreme with a lighting design that offers many patterned shadows to illustrate evening strolls and ghostly interventions as well as ensuring holiday cheer that brings street and parlor celebrations to full life. Y. Sharon Peng's properties are outstanding in filling holiday tables and street carts with fish and fowl alike.

The giant specter of the Ghost of the Future, whose two-floor height is achieved by operator Randy O'Hara, dwarfs Scrooge in the final, much-anticipated sequence. Visits to a graveyard full of singing diggers is where lyrics too often escape understanding for an otherwise promising number. In a climactic moment when a large gravestone is turned around to give Scrooge one of his final shocks, what is more shocking is that it seems to be missing the anticipated inscription of whose grave it actually is.

One final note of deserved praise goes to the five or six kids in the production, including Noah Itzkovitz as Tiny Tim. They bring cherub voices, much glowing holiday eagerness, and overall wonderful spirit throughout. And as kids, they act the parts with gusto.

Certainly, there are a number of moments to relish in Hillbarn Theatre's A Christmas Carol, but unless the numerous technical and occasional but obvious performance issues are resolved, this is not a Carol to be highly recommended this holiday season.

A Christmas Carol, through December 16, 2018, at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 East Hillsdale Boulevard, Foster City CA. Tickets are available online at or by calling 650-349-6411.

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