Regional Reviews: St. Louis
A Christmas Carol
The risk then doubles when the show's technical director reportedly up and quits right after the first planning meeting for this new tradition. I have heard that others were ready to bolt as well. "Not enough time!," people warned, to get such a demanding, ambitious show off the ground, less than two months ago. But ...
"Strangely enough, it all turns out well," as Tom Stoppard explains, in Shakespeare in Love. "How?," you demand to know. But nobody ever knows how. It's a mystery.
And, indeed, they've scored a jackpot at The Rep, even with a 45-minute delay on opening night due to tornado warnings, and even with an outrageous Victorian hip hop number halfway through the show. ("Damn you, Lin-Manuel Miranda," I would say, if anyone still had a sense of humor.) Guiesseppe Jones is excellent as a heartless Scrooge, all the way through to his transformation at the end. And Armando McClain brings an abashed working man's nobility to the role of Bob Cratchit, Scrooge's long-suffering bookkeeper. Hana Sharif herself directs, with consistently great results.
But you can see why the first technical director quit. The computerized projections by Hana S. Kim and Erin Teachman are a show in themselves, with impossible swirls of snow and ghostly women running through tangles of brush on the scrims, and on and on in this 2-1/2 hour production. The fresh new costumes are sumptuous, by Tony Award nominee Dede Ayite; and the 1990 adaptation (of the 1843 novella) by playwright Michael Wilson features a delightful construction, in which the three famous ghosts and visions on Christmas Eve are presented as a sort of "play-within-a-play." Here, the ghosts first occupy similar narrative roles to those of the farmhands in 1939's The Wizard of Oz, later becoming fantastical creatures in the middle of that film. In this A Christmas Carol, there are also ghoulish Morris dancers, taunting and devilish in the scene changes.
It's not at all as lighthearted as the annual production at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, nor as frightfully dark as The Rep's own 2016 version in St. Louis, adapted by David H. Bell (which I loved). And it's certainly not as "twee" as a traveling production I saw nearly two decades ago at the Fabulous Fox Theatre here, in a saccharine bus and truck tour from Nebraska. In this somewhat more grown-up 2021 iteration at The Rep, Michael James Reed supplies a rueful comic tone in drag, as Scrooge's housemaid. Then he's also shockingly different as the mad, floating ghost of Jacob Marley when the trouble first starts. In between all the nightmarish scenes, there's a light, ironic tone to much of the exposition to keep things fresh.
Much later, actress Michelle Hand looks like she's going silently out of her mind, in the third ghost's scene, as Mrs. Cratchit. That's when one of her surviving children reads Goshen-like promises of protection from the Bible in the show's saddest moment, during the alternate future in "Christmas yet to come." (I couldn't help but wonder: did Dickens actually invent the concept of an "alternate future"?) All the children are excellent, including a very young Rian Amirikal Page as Tiny Tim on this night, a role also played by Georgia Reynolds on young Mr. Page's nights off. Webster University student Sydney Leiser is splendidly complex as the Cratchits' oldest child Martha.
J. Samuel Davis and Melissa Harlow are fine as the charity workers who dare to importune, in the very belly of the beast, in Scrooge's counting house (with a huge slithering sign looming outside, over the street). Later, Mr. Davis is genuinely creepy as an undertaker in a third-ghost scene. Raffeal Sears is delightful as the post-adolescent Scrooge, and also as Scrooge's nephew Fred, with Alegra Batara providing lovely emotional richness as Fred's wife Belle. The cast members on-hand, numbering in the dozens, all do beautifully. There is an alternate cast of children, just in case.
The three ghosts unfold their mysteries in fresh bold ways: Laakan McHardy is fearless and beautiful as the ghost of Christmas Past; Paul Aguirre is booming and festive in the present-day visions; and Eric Dean White is inexplicable and daunting as the ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. On opening night Mr. White looked like a sexier version of Robocop, or perhaps a more malevolent version of one of the skaters from Starlight Express. But he himself seemed doomed to go plummeting down the stage right voum, as the third ghost floats around on a whirring hoverboard. It nearly happened while he was circling Scrooge the first or second time. I was seated down by the stage left voum, and it looked like that hoverboard had rolled right over the seam between the playing area and the stage right ramp, which goes all the way down between the rows of the audience for entrances and exits. It's a wide sweeping turn to make while wearing a dark, face-covering helmet, on a contraption meant for chorus boys.
Opening night began on a bittersweet note, with the company's business manager Marc Bernstein bidding farewell to The Rep after 35 years of unflagging service, having built it up to the current level of high prestige. COVID-19 will be merely the last big public upheaval he's gone through. And he leaves at a point where you can finally choose not to sit in socially distanced areas any more, in a sign of a return to normalcy for the ticket-buying public. And of course it's good business to leave your successor with a big, showy show on the shelf you can put on every December, like this. Although by now I'd forgotten what it's like to be crowded into a normal audience situation, and was glad to have sound-deadening earbuds to stay calm before each act in a boisterous mob. As I, too, attempt to re-enter the real world.
A Christmas Carol runs through December 23, 2021, at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, on the campus of Webster University, 130 Edgar Rd., St. Louis MO. Photo ID and proof of COVID-19 vaccination is required (this may also be shown as a photo) and masks must be worn at all times. For more information visit www.repstl.org.
Webster University Conservatory Cast:
Youth Ensemble * Blue:
Youth Ensemble * Green:
* Denotes Member, Actors Equity Association