By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy
Approx. Running time: 2 hours with one intermission
We all know the story or have heard it (or at least bits and pieces of it) throughout our lives and it’s a good story and a staple for the holiday season. Of course I’m talking about Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which, incidentally, I didn’t learn until recently is the story they sing about in “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” in the lyric “there’ll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories from Christmases long, long ago!” In Chesapeake Shakespeare Company’s latest production, A Christmas Carol, Adapted by Ian Gallanar and Directed by Scott Alan Small, we’re taken back, once again, to Victorian England to learn a lesson of compassion, love, and the Christmas spirit (or spirits).
Gregory Burgess (Ebenezer Scrooge) and Michael Toperzer (The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come). Photo: Brandon W. Vernon
For those unfamiliar, and I can’t imagine it’s many, A Christmas Carol concerns itself with Ebenezer Scrooge, an old curmudgeon miser who wants nothing to do with Christmas until his old partner, Jacob Marley, who has passed on before him, comes to him carrying heavy chains made from his horrible actions while he was alive and a warning that three ghosts will visit him, The Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, to teach him what the season is all about. Marley warns him to change his ways or else he’ll end up with the same fate and even heavier chains.
Scenic Designer Daniel O’Brien keeps it simple with a unit set and pieces that move in and out to create the spaces in which each scene is set. Kudos to O’Brien for the attention to detail in the pieces and the dark, Gothic color scheme that is most appropriate to the period. The set adds great value to the production, as a whole, and helps move the story along rather than hinder it and O’Brien is to be commended for his efforts.
Costumes are challenging for a period piece, even for a professional theatre company, but Costume Designer Kristina Lambdin and Hair, Wig, and Makeup Designer Sandra Spence are on point with every stitch and curl. No detail was too small and Lambdin and Spence transport the audience right back to Victorian England with their superb designs and they deserve their own round of applause for their work on this production.
Tamieka Chavis and Gregory Michael Atkin. Photo: Brandon W. Vernon
Some would consider this production a musical because of all the music provided pre-show, in-show, and pre-Act II, but I can’t help but think it more of a play with music. That being said, Music Direction by Grace Srinivasan is exquisite. Every song that was chosen is apropos and she guides her cast in to tight, harmonious performances that add that something extra special to this production. I couldn’t mention music without mentioning Donna Korn, credited as Musician, and she is phenomenal in her craft, though other very apt cast members join her in accompanying the cast in their songs, Korn takes the lead playing several instruments throughout, flawlessly. Hats off to Korn for her strong, delightful showing.
Along with music, Dance usually isn’t far behind and Choreographer Nellie K. Glover gives us engaging and enjoyable choreography that is in the style of Victorian England, so it’s clear she’s done her homework. Intricate group numbers are upbeat, sophisticated, and tight and are just a joy to watch from the audience.
Scott Alan Small takes the helm of this piece and it’s clear he has a tight grasp on the classic, well-known story from a bygone era. He puts his own seasoning on this yearly production and his staging is smooth, keeping up a steady pace that moves along nicely. Most, not all, know the story coming in, so Small isn’t trying to rewrite the story, but presents it in a charming manner rebooting the relatable characters, making them fit into his vision. Hats off to Small for a job well done.
Gregory Burgess and Bethany Mayo. Photo: Brandon W. Vernon
Moving to the performance aspect of the production, the adage that comes to mind is “you win some, you lose some.” Most of the performances are splendid with an apt ensemble that is giving 100% effort and thoroughly enjoying themselves on stage and with each other which makes the overall performance enjoyable.
One interesting performance, to be delicate, is that of Company Member Gregory Michael Atkin who takes on the dual role of Fezziwig, Scrooge’s former and jovial employer, and The Ghost of Christmas Present. Now, I’m all for camp and I usually enjoy it immensely, however, Atkin’s style of camp just stuck out like a sore thumb in this production. I can see what he and/or Director Scott Alan Small is going for, bringing a modern twist to an old story, but Atkin just seems to go over the top repeatedly. Seeing him portray both roles with no real contrast between the two, it’s just as if he’s disregarded the characters themselves with no real character work. The flamboyance, the overt sass, and needless ad lib is a bit too much for this reviewer, but, hey, everyone’s a critic, right?
Xander Martin and Steve Torres. Photo: Brandon W. Vernon
On the other end of the scale, however, there are many highlights and standout performances in this production. To mention a few, Tamieka Chavis is absolutely delightful and authentic as Mrs. Fezziwig, among other characters. Her portrayal of this bubbly character just makes you smile from the moment she steps on stage and she has a certain presence and air that is second to none. I’m looking forward to seeing more stage work from her. Also, Steve Torres gives a good showing as the meek but caring Bob Cratchit giving a lovely performance with a natural delivery and purpose, showing he has a good grasp on this character. Along side Torres, Molly Moores as Mrs. Cratchit (and a shining moment as Scrooge’s old teacher, Miss Winthrop), and all the Cratchit children, especially young Temperance Oppel, are charming as the down and out but still loving Cratchit family.
Other mentionable performances come from Michael Toperzer who takes on the role of the ever optimistic, only living relative of Ebenezer Scrooge, Fred. Toperzer gives a strong, confident performance and works well with his castmates, especially in scenes with Fred’s close friends, including Kate Forton who gives a humorous and warm presentation as Caroline, a tipsy and fun-loving young woman.
Bethany Mayo, as the Ghost of Christmas Past gives an admirable performance, if not a little stiff, at times, but walking around lit up like a Christmas tree (though an beautiful and elegant Christmas tree) can be a little distracting for anyone.
Scrooge himself is portrayed, once again, by Gregory Burgess and this performer seems to completely embody this character. After playing a role repeatedly for several years, one would think it would get stale, but if it is, you won’t know it watching Burgess as he masterfully navigates through the story with a confident and consistent performance that brings Ebenezer Scrooge right off the page and into the real world. His dedication and character work is clear and he has a deep comprehension of this character making for a near flawless showing. Kudos to Burgess for his efforts and hard work.
Gregory Burgess and Lance Bankerd. Photo: Brandon W. Vernon
A standout in this particular production is undoubtedly Lance Bankderd, tackling the role of Jacob Marley. Bankerd has this role down pat and from his facial expressions to the spooky character voice he uses, his stage movement – everything is superb. He brings this small, but significant character to life and is in your face with no bones about it. He has a tight grasp on what the purpose of this character is and what this character is saying, which makes his performance impeccable all around. I can say, arguably, his performance is almost worth the price of admission and you don’t want to miss it.
Final thought… A Christmas Carol is always a good bet around the holidays, albeit a common one. This script is part of the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company’s annual holiday tradition and it suits them well. Every production is different and I actually saw one a couple of years ago and this current one happens to be much more entertaining and engaging so, it’s an evolving production with a revolving cast and different directors so, it doesn’t get stale. There are a few curious acting choices in this production, but overall, it’s a fun-filled, loving telling off the Dickens’ classic. The production is well put-together and polished and keeps it simple which is how it should be. Kudos to the cast, crew, and production team for a solid, entertaining production.
A Christmas Carol will play through December 24 at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, 7 South Calvert Street, Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call the box office at 410-244-8570 or you can purchase them online.
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