Tag Archives: Julius Arthur Leonard

The Road Gets Bumpy, but Theatre Charlotte’s “Christmas Carol” Prevails at CP

Review: A Christmas Carol at Halton Theater

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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Almost a year ago, fire struck the Theatre Charlotte building on Queens Road, gouging a sizable trench in its auditorium and destroying its electrical equipment. Repairs and renovations will hopefully be completed in time for the launch of the company’s 95th season next fall, but meanwhile, actors, directors, designers, and technicians are soldiering on at various venues for 2021-22, their year of exile cheerfully branded as “The Road Trip Season Tour.” Ironically enough, Theatre Charlotte’s Season 94 began in September with a downsized musical, The Fantasticks, at the Palmer Building, a facility that once served as a training ground for firefighters. For their 14th production of A Christmas Carol, Theatre Charlotte has moved along to Halton Theater, the permanent home of Central Piedmont Theatre.

Timing is a bit awkward on the campus of Central Piedmont Community College, where a new theater that will be friendlier to dramatic productions – replacing the demolished Pease Auditorium – is slated to open in April with The Diary of Anne Frank. Graced with a generous orchestra pit, the Halton is more hospitable to big splashy musicals (when its sound system responds favorably to our crossed fingers). In fact, this transplanted production of A Christmas Carol, in Julius Arthur Leonard’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ iconic novella, reminds us how well-suited the old “Queens Road barn” was for such spooky and creepy fare. Not only were the ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Future at home there, but so were such confections as Arsenic and Old Lace, Assassins, Blithe Spirit, and To Kill a Mockingbird. The Halton occasionally seemed oversized when You Can’t Take It With You took up residence there at the beginning of Central Piedmont’s current season, and you can imagine how their spectacular 2015 Phantom of the Opera emphasized the grandness of Andy Lloyd Webber’s grand guignol.

Encountering the vastness of the Halton in transplanting Theatre Charlotte’s cozy Christmas Carol, director Jill Bloede has been characteristically resourceful in executing its many daunting scene changes. At times, we could see cast members whisking set pieces off to the wings in a smooth out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new routine. But there were occasions when changes of scenery necessitated a complete closing and reopening of the stage curtains. Veiling the tediousness of that maneuver, Bloede has summoned repeated parades of a small band of merry carolers, coached by Jim Eddings, to cross the stage while the curtains are closed – so you would probably be right in thinking there are more carols sung this year than in Christmases past on Queens Road. My welcome for the carolers on opening night veered toward the unredeemed Ebenezer Scrooge’s grumpy attitude as the evening progressed, yet opening night is destined to be enshrined in Theatre Charlotte lore as the night of the infamous doorknocker scene fiasco.

One of the first indications that Scrooge’s house will be haunted, after a ghostly “Ebenezer Scrooge!” exclamation blows in on the Halton’s sound system, is the brief scene at the threshold to Ebenezer’s home. Here is where Scrooge sees a fleeting glimpse of his deceased partner, Jacob Marley, bringing his doorknocker to life. The precision needed to carry off such a simple scene only became apparent when it went awry. Either the Halton curtains were tardy in arriving at their centerstage spots, where they would fully frame Scrooge’s front door, or the actor who was to lurk unseen behind that door arrived early – and was very clearly seen, garishly aglow. Portraying Scrooge, Hank West seemed sufficiently poised to extemporize while the stage curtains and the lurking Marley came into proper alignment. But the carolers took their cue and entered before West could properly proceed, and the panicked actor behind the door fled. West finished out the brief scene as well he could without any eerie lights beaming through the doorknocker, but the special effect was lost – the only real reason for that scene.

Legions of Theatre Charlotte veterans – and new initiates in years to come – will no doubt keep the memory of this snafu alive for generations, heartily laughing all the more at the incident because it didn’t typify the production. Scenic design by Chris Timmons and lighting by Gordon Olson didn’t expand quite enough to comfortably acclimate at the Halton, nor did the company splurge on smoke or fog effects during its financial woes, which might have deepened the spell of the spookier Marley and graveyard scenes. Don’t expect any snow to flutter down on the vast Halton acreage, either. With balmy temperatures likely to prevail throughout the opening weekend, it’s Beth Killion’s set of period costumes that most successfully instill a chill into the air.IMG_8525

We’ve seen some of this cast before, notably West as Scrooge, Chip Bradley as Christmas Present, and Mary Lynn Bain doubling as Fred’s wife Elizabeth in the present and Belle, Scrooge’s old flame, in the flashbacks. All of these enlarge on their past performances to some extent, maybe West most of all. His meanness is more startling in person than it was in last year’s video version, streamed online, and his sorrow and penitence are also magnified. The graceful arc of Scrooge’s redemption is only slightly bumpier this year with West’s adjustments to the new space, Bloede’s script edits for this intermission-free edition, and a body mic. Projected into a larger hall, Scrooge’s newly minted intentions needed to sound more like settled resolves and less like agonized pleas. Bradley enlarges to a similar degree upon Present’s outsized cheer, the more the merrier in his case – until he issues his climactic admonitions, now sharper in their contrast. Bain seems most content to let her mic do her amplification, but she is stronger this year in the climactic flashback scene when she returns Ebenezer’s engagement ring.IMG_8694_dcoston

All the newcomers to TC’s Carol are quite fine, a testament to Bloede’s ability to attract talent when she holds auditions. In contrast with the veiled youthful mystery of Anna McCarty last year, Suzanne Newsom brought a nostalgic melancholy to the Ghost of Christmas Past that was quite affecting in its serenity, while Mike Corrigan appeared for the first time as Bob Cratchit – very different with his more muted brand of meekness from Andrea King last year but no less kindly or comical. For richer or poorer, Josh Logsdon and Rebecca Kirby were a fine pairing for the Fezziwigs, Aedan Coughlin doubled well as Young Ebenezer and Ghost of Christmas Future, and Riley Smith brought all the optimism needed for the sanctity of Tiny Tim. With Mitzi Corrigan and Emma Corrigan on board as Mrs. Cratchit and daughter Belinda, there’s plenty of family authenticity around the humble Cratchit hearth – or there will be when Mitzi returns from personal leave due to a death in her real family. Vanessa Davis spelled ably for Corrigan as Mrs. Cratchit at the premiere performance, augmenting her regular role as Mrs. Dilbur.

Assuming that Thom Tonetti was already in character as Jacob Marley during the notorious doorknocker scene, I’ll say his opening night adventures most typified the Theatre Charlotte crew’s tribulations in acclimating to a new space. Marley’s entrance into Scrooge’s home wasn’t dramatized with smoke and lights, and Tonetti didn’t enjoy the benefit of having his prophecies and imprecations magnified with thunderous jolts from the soundboard. During the flashbacks, the actor certainly earned some sort of sportsmanship award, appearing as the younger Jacob opposite the truly younger Coughlin.IMG_8645_dcoston

Steadying this production and assuring that its professional polish never deteriorated into community theatre chaos for long, West ultimately triumphed over all missteps and obstacles, bringing us the compelling Scrooge we expect in all his goodness. It’s still a strong story, and 24 of its most ardent Theatre Charlotte believers are moonlighting at Central Piedmont, giving this 87-minute production the old college try. A drama within a drama, to be sure, both ending happily.

Originally published on 12/18 at CVNC.org

2020 or Not 2020

Review: A Half-Masked Christmas Carol at Theatre Charlotte

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Luckily, the Ghost of Christmas Present in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, so friendly and jolly with his glowing torch, was more than 175 years removed from 2020 when he made his first oxymoronic appearance in print. Christmas of 1843 may not have been the best ever as it greeted Dickens’ original readers, but it had to be more festive than 2020, the gloomiest in centuries.

While it’s possible to retreat into the nostalgia of numerous movie and TV adaptations of the Yuletide classic, Charlotte is one of hundreds of cities where watching live theatrical adaptations has become a holiday tradition. So it’s fascinating, even revelatory to see how Theatre Charlotte is adapting to the unprecedented circumstances of 2020 in presenting its 14th annual production of A Christmas Carol.

It’s a remarkable chameleon, adapted by Julius Arthur Leonard and co-directed by Stuart Spencer and Chris Timmons. This is truly a to-be-or-not-to-be effort: Live and virtual, at Theatre Charlotte on Queens Road and not, set in Dickens’ London in the 19th century and unmistakably invaded by COVID-19 and the constraints of the pandemic. 2020 or not 2020.

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Watching the virtual version recorded at the Queens Road barn, I was surprised to find how Dickens’ characters, in period costumes designed by Chelsea Retalic, replicated daily life today. While Marley and the three famous Christmas Ghosts wore masks, others – including Scrooge, his nephew, and the Cratchits – did not. No wonder poor Tiny Tim is dying!

Live outdoor performances of Theatre Charlotte’s pandemic edition of Dickens premiered at Christ South’s Old Dairy Farm in Waxhaw on Reid Dairy Road, which may account for some of the anomalies we see when we tune in to the indoor version. Outdoors, winter is upon us, so Spencer and Timmons may not have wished their Scrooge to change into his jammies. Besides that, an outdoor shift in scene from the Scrooge & Marley counting house to Ebenezer’s bedroom may have been unwieldy out on the farm.

So all of the action, aside from the Ghosts’ travels, is confined to Scrooge’s office until he sallies forth on Christmas day. To achieve this economy and consistency, Spencer and Timmons alter the plot just a little, sending Scrooge outdoors for dinner and having him realize that he has forgotten his pocket watch at his office. That’s where Marley and the Ghosts will now do their haunting. Nor do our directors forget about Ebenezer’s watch or his watch chain, elegantly transforming it into a fresh plot point without changing any of the dialogue.

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The uncredited set design, likely by Timmons, is very spare, silhouettes of city and government buildings in the background, connected to the Scrooge & Marley firm by a stunted staircase and a front door. No walls or windows obscure our view of the sidewalk outside the office or the silhouetted figures that traverse it. Inside, we never need more at Scrooge’s HQ than desks for Ebenezer and his oppressed drone Bob Cratchit. Bedtime is never observed, so there’s no longer any need for a bed. When we visit the Cratchits or Scrooge’s nephew Fred, as much as a cushioned chair and a wee table are necessary, so that Fred’s wife may have a glass of wine and a decanter nearby, but that is all.

Sound design by Timmons and Vito Abate only blunders with the opening and closing of Scrooge’s front door. Opening it lets in a hullabaloo of street sounds and closing it silences the noise – except we can clearly hear the footsteps of whoever departs on the sidewalk. Grander and more successful are the sounds heralding the supernatural entrances of Marley and the three Christmas Ghosts, while lighting by Rick Wiggins brashly suggests that all three of Scrooge’s guides have celestial origins.

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Hank West, mostly prized around town for his comedy exploits, is not a complete stranger to mean roles, having portrayed the Marquis de Sade in 2003. There’s nothing missing of Scrooge’s flinty cantankerousness in the opening scene. West’s rebuffs of a charitable solicitor (just one this year instead of two) and his nephew Fred are even more repellent than his tyranny and resentment toward Cratchit. It’s when we approach West’s comedic wheelhouse where we find him woefully hamstrung. Deprived of Scrooge’s bedclothes and his dopey nightcap – the lone accessories that make Ebenezer vulnerable or adorable through five-sixths of the story – West must accompany the Ghosts in business attire.

Worse than that, West must give us a Scrooge who dances with glee, realizing that he hasn’t missed Christmas morning, dressed up like an adult going to work rather than as a child waking from – and to – a fabulous holiday dream. Missing this parcel of Dickens’ visual genius, we can appreciate it more, for the nightcap and bedclothes are also as indispensable to the distinctive flavor of Scrooge’s supernatural journeys as the Ghosts’ personalities.

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West’s comedy isn’t totally eclipsed, peeping out in his retorts to Cratchit and the Solicitor, in his timing of remarks after visitors exit, and in his sunny sallies around town making his many amends. Of course, the final prank on Cratchit when he comes in late on the 26th is handsomely done, though I was a little surprised by West’s decision to underplay Scrooge’s mischievousness and glee as he did Ebenezer’s playacting.

More women than men are seen onstage here, with Andrea King tipping the balance as Bob Cratchit. At work, she is purely deferential toward Scrooge, and King’s entrance on the 26th has a stealth worthy of Chaplin or Lucille Ball. We probably notice that at home, King’s Cratchit as a husband and a father comes off as less of a patriarch than we’re accustomed to. Can’t say that I minded much – am I becoming too evolved?

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Seeing both Allen Andrews as Christmas Yet to Come and Josh Logsdon as Marley’s Ghost wearing masks hardly detracted from their portrayals. Logsdon’s mask had an orifice that seemed rimmed with teeth, he was bundled up with enough rags under his chains to look like a leper, and a huge gray wig affixed to his head with a shroud-like kerchief made him even more loathsome. Notwithstanding Scrooge’s doubts, when Logsdon bemoaned his fate and issued Marley’s warnings, there was far more grave than gravy in this ghost.

More noticeable were the alterations that masks imposed on the women Ghosts. Reprising her role as Christmas Past, Anna McCarty had a veiled look in her gleaming white gown, Arabian or ecclesiastical in its modesty. Yet when she needed to be strong and authoritative, McCarty didn’t disappoint, even though she seemed more socially-distanced than her castmates. Lechetze Lewis as Christmas Present was free to mingle more in her garrulous London tour. Her lively interaction with Fred and his wife, Andrews and Mary Lynn Bain, offered the most spectacular display of Retalic’s costume designs this side of Marley.

Andrews’ entreaties that Uncle Scrooge come dine with Fred were nearly as foundational in establishing the Christmas spirit on Queens Road as Cratchit’s sufferings and goodwill. Bain was also more impactful when she doubled as Belle, Scrooge’s sweetheart in the flashback, particularly when she returns her engagement ring, releases Ebenezer from his obligations, and decries his worship of Mammon.

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Little moments like this, Cratchit applauding Fred’s advocacy of Christmas, and the perfect view we get of Cratchit sneaking in late after the holiday are among the many testaments we get to the work of Megan Shiflett and Nick Allison behind the cameras – delivering the best angles from the best distances. Theatre Charlotte may not have the resources that CPCC can boast in video gear, but they’re outstripping every live video I’ve seen from the college, because Spencer and Timmons are so deftly cuing their cameras where to be and when.

Amid the special hardships of 2020, local theatre companies are substantially sharpening their video techniques and their cinema savvy, good tidings that will pay dividends when COVID-19 is conquered.

With Jill Bloede executing the Narrator’s role in such a ceremonious British style, and with the likes of Tom Ollis and Rebecca Kirby as the Fezziwigs, quality runs deep in this cast – as deep as you’d expect with productions running twice the five performances this one is getting. There’s plenty of mileage left in the virtual version, which continues its on-demand run through January 2.