REVIEW: Milwaukee Rep’s A CHRISTMAS CAROL
Reviewed By: Matthew Perta Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow
I was never a fan of Charles Dickens, which is why I’ve seen A Christmas Carol, performed for 39 years now by the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, maybe once in the last decade.
While I still find Dickens’ writings too dark for my tastes, my attitude toward his holiday tale about miserly Ebenezer Scrooge and his three ghostly visitors brightened considerably – not unlike Scrooge’s own transformation from an uncaring soul to a man of boundless generosity – thanks to a heartwarming production that’s being staged by the Milwaukee Repertory Theater in the city’s historic Pabst Theater.
Dickens’ tale of love, hope and redemption – and featuring one man’s life-changing journey through Christmas Past, Present and Future – is brought to life by the Milwaukee Rep memorably, with the right blend of beautiful music, lively dancing and stunning sets, eye-popping special effects – and even humor – enough theatrical goodies to fill those stockings hung by the chimney with care.
At the heart of A Christmas Carol is Jonathan Smoots, a beloved, Milwaukee-based actor making his debut as Ebenezer Scrooge, after playing over 50 other roles in A Christmas Carol since 1981. I’ve always envisioned Dickens’ curmudgeon as a doddering old man, thanks to the myriad film versions. That’s not the case here. Smoots’ portrays a refreshingly different Scrooge – a middle-aged, energetic man with a ferocious yet, I will admit, delicious roar that matches the bitter winter wind blowing outside his office building. This Scrooge’s transformation from a lonely, embittered chap to a man capable of great generosity and love is remarkably moving, a testament to Smoots’ abilities to capture the character’s shadings.
Smoots gets excellent support from an impressive cast, including Chiké Johnson as the ghost of Marley, his dead business partner; Ashleigh LaThrop as Belle, the spirited fiancé of a young Scrooge; Hollis Resnik as Scrooge’s dotinghousekeeper Mrs. Dilber and Christmas Past; Jonathan Wainwright and Marti Gobel as the loving Cratchits; and Melody A. Betts as the hilarious Christmas Present.
Johnson, LaThrop and Resnik all have ties to Chicago theater.
Resnik wowed audiences earlier this year with her tour-de-force portrayal of Judy Garland in the Rep’s production of End of the Rainbow. The versatility Resnik displayed on stage in Milwaukee this year is nothing short of amazing, which explains why she’s the recipient of all those acting honors listed in her bio.
This production of A Christmas Carol is remarkable on two other fronts. Marjorie Bradley Kellogg’s sets depicting 19th Century London mingle perfectly with the quaint, old-world charm of the Pabst Theater. And, in a bit of progressive casting, several roles are being played by African-American actors.
In A Christmas Carol, a young Scrooge is encouraged to “open his heart to the spirit of the season.” There’s a good chance yours will open wider than ever before after you see this splendid production of the Dickens’ holiday classic. The Rep’s A Christmas Carol is a gift you’ll likely cherish for a long time after leaving the theater.
A Christmas Carol will spread its warmth through Dec. 24 at Milwaukee’s historic Pabst Theater, located at 144 East Wells St. in downtown Milwaukee. Tickets begin at $25. For tickets call the Milwaukee Repertory Theater at (414) 224-9490. The Rep’s ticket office is located at 108 E. Wells St. To buy ticketsonline visit www.MilwaukeeRep.com.