Milwaukee Rep Unwraps A Visually Stunning “A CHRISTMAS CAROL”
Reviewed by: Matthew Perta
When Milwaukee Repertory Theater Artistic Director Mark Clements took to the stage at our city’s historic Pabst Theater to welcome the audience before the curtain went up on his new production of A Christmas Carol, he admitted that he was the “most anxious guy in Milwaukee” that Friday night. It was understandable for Clements to be a bit on edge, after all this new adaptation of the Charles Dickens’ holiday classic was three years in the making. And while the opening performance went off without a glitch – at least without any I detected – the question remains: Will Milwaukeeans (and maybe Chicagoans) who have been going to see The Rep’s A Christmas Carol now for over 40 years, accept this adaptation that retains elements of past productions but also offers an abundance of new traditions, some of which are downright dark and spooky?
Clements’ new version of A Christmas Carol is like this surprise gift you didn’t expect Santa would leave you on Christmas morning. Just open it and you’ll be greeted by the author himself, Charles Dickens; along with an Ebenezer Scrooge who talks directly to the audience – and wants a response; a rotating set that sweeps the audience magically through the twists and turns of Victorian England; new musical orchestrations; a singing Tiny Tim, and something called, according to press materials, “innovative snow-effect technology” that gracefully sprinkles snow on the audience, offering a sharp contrast to the show’s scarier components, like the Ghost of Christmas Future, decked out in black cape and hood with bulging red eyes that seem to burn right through you, and Scrooge’s visit to a dark and creepy graveyard that goes on a bit too long.
This new adaptation A Christmas Carol is visually stunning and technically impressive, to say the least. When Scrooge arrives home on Christmas Eve, the knocker on his front door becomes the face of his deceased business partner, Jacob Marley. And, the Ghost of Christmas Past is refreshed by a modern look with a costume featuring a head of flames and a robe that looks like a snowstorm of colored lights.
For me, the best new aspect of this show is the interactive element, in which Scrooge and other characters ask the audience a question and expect an answer. It turns into great fun, keeping the audience on its toes and making Dickens’ work more palatable.
Despite these new elements, Clements’ version of A Christmas Carol retains at its heart the original tale of an embittered man who is invigorated with a fresh new outlook on life after the visits of the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future. Jonathan Wainwright is superb as Scrooge, the best ever in Rep history. So heart wrenching is Wainwright’s final speech before being transformed into a generous soul that you desperately want his Scrooge to get a second chance. Equally impressive is Jonathan Smoots, who portrayed Scrooge the last two seasons and this time around gives a tour-de-force as Jacob Marley. Deborah Staples, aided by the beautifully lighted costume I mentioned earlier, is stunning as Ghost of Christmas Past, and eight-year-old Edward Owczarski earned polite applause for singing a solo as Tiny Tim.
Cast members with ties to Chicago, either through education or theater, include Christie Coran, Matt Frye, Chiké Johnston, and Luigi Sottile.
Clements’ new adaptation of A Christmas Carol runs the gamut from scary and dramatic to festive and inspiring. But given the show’s scary elements, is it really family-friendly entertainment Milwaukeeans (and maybe Chicagoans) want at this time of the year? I spotted a child seated near me hugging his mother during some of the show’s spookier moments.
The Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s new production of A Christmas Carol runs through Dec. 24 at the historic Pabst Theater, 144 E. Wells in downtown Milwaukee. For tickets visit www.MilwaukeeRep.com or call (414) 224-9490. The Rep Box Office is located at 108 E. Wells St.