Regional Reviews: Wisconsin, SE
A Christmas CarolChildren's Theater of Madison/Overture Center for the Arts
That reaction to the Children's Theater of Madison production, at the Overture Center for the Arts, would be a serious mistake. In part, the pointed new adaptation by Charlotte T. Martin and the fresh direction by Brian Cowing make this warhorse stamp its hooves and get a martial gleam in its eye. In part, the excellent casting of the major roles and the solid ensemble work of the remaining cast, including a plethora of younger actors, give the performance an unexpected intensity.
Everyone knows the story. Ebenezer Scrooge (La Shawn Banks), a successful London businessman and a miser to the core, encounters four ghosts just before Christmas: his former partner, Jacob Marley, forced to wander the Earth (like Hamlet's father) until he has expiated his sins of greed and selfishness; and the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, who show Scrooge scenes from real life that reveal his weaknesses and failures as a human being. Of course (spoiler alert!), he wises up at the end and becomes a generous and empathetic human being.
In particular, Banks turns in a fiery performance–a hissing, growling, twisted Scrooge, alternately fearsome and pathetic as his fate (eternal solitude) dawns on him. His performance is worthy of Shakespeare. Casting a younger man, instead of an old geezer in a nightgown and nightcap, gives the role teeth: He's more Hamlet than King Lear.
Other notables include Trevin Gay as the jolly Mr. Fezziwig, Sampson, and a Christmas Future on stilts whose very stillness sends a chill up the spine (together with almost subsonic footsteps); Nathan Connor as an alternately cold and tormented Jacob Marley; and Ogunde Tremayne as a bubbly Christmas Present, all partygoer alternating with a cold voice of Fate.
Did the word "cold" pop up there? The play's London is very cold, as is Scrooge's house (to save money on coal). The cold seeps into every aspect of the production, especially the world of the poor people who keep the machinery running and the lights on. The set by Christopher R. Dunham features several levels, as well as a backdrop of stars, illuminated on occasion to segue scenes. Also, a collection of street lamps–the old-fashioned, multifaceted kind lit by hand by the Lamplighters (who double as a chorus for group scenes)–hangs overhead, alternating colors to suit the mood.
Another positive feature of the production is the accompaniment by a quartet of piano (Mark Wurzelbacher, also the composer and conductor), violin (Maynie Bradley), cello (John Backus), and woodwinds (Greg Smith). They play mostly Christmas tunes before and during the show, as well as at intermission. The live accompaniment is very much appreciated, when a tape could have been used.
Not everyone attains the heights of the characters mentioned above; the writing wouldn't support it, but the roles were solid and enjoyable. Even the dialog work of the minor roles is credible, though a few vowels need some polishing ("roit!"?). The costumes (Shelley Cornia) are appropriately period and lend splashes of Christmas colors to the affair. The Capitol is a decent-sized theater, though it's doubtful the actors needed such high amplification.
All in all, a five-alarm, three-hanky barnburner of a show.
A Christmas Carol runs through December 23, 2022, at the Overture Center's Capitol Theater, 201 State St., Madison WI. For tickets and information, call 608-258-4141, or visit www.overture.org.
Other cast: Samuel Alvarez, Lydia Benish, Isabelle Bushue, Brynn Campbell, Lucia Clinkscale, Nadia Emma Collins, Greyson Ebert, Ben Haden, Clare Arena Haden, Scott Haden, Quinn Koehler, Scott Lewis, Simon Littlefield, Zoe Littlefield, Noah A. McDowell, Laura McMillan, Pippa Moran, Josie Anne Petroff, Trequon Tate, Jennifer Vosters.
Production stage manager: Anders Goodwin; lighting design: Greg Hofmann; sound design: Ethan White.