There’s a moment in Once Upon a Christmas Carol, a holiday musical by Run Rabbit Run Theatre, that appears to be a mismatch. Phil Erickson, who plays Scrooge, is trying to hide from apparitions and regrets, those sisters. He has laid himself back down in his bed and covered his head with the quilts. Molly Warndorf, who plays the Ghost of Christmas Past, has to make him get up. Erickson is an accomplished, prodigious actor whose charisma tends to dominate the stage, and Warndorf is an eighth-grade girl who played a munchkin at Harmony Middle School once. Asking her to bully him would not appear to be a good idea.
I expect the moment to ring false, and I cringe as it approaches because I’ve been liking the play so well and I want to keep liking it, but I doubt a one-time munchkin little girl can generate enough personal power to roust Phil Erickson, even if he cooperates. Why not give that task to somebody like Shawn Malone, who’s bigger than the bed Erickson’s hiding in, and whose experience with Not Just Shakespeare, Inc. is even more substantial than his person? And he’s right there in the middle of the cast — a couple of scenes earlier he picked up Drew Hare and wrapped him around his waist with one arm. I’d make that guy kick Erickson’s butt out of bed.
Director Meredith McMath sent in the child.
How often, I wonder, does a play as good as this one come from choices that seem ill-advised?
I, for example, would think that is was ill-advised to try to make musical theater out of A Christmas Carol at all, because the guy in the middle of the story is too bitter to sing. But McMath, who adapted the classic Dickens novel for the stage, and Diane El-Shafey, who wrote the production’s original score, have surrounded Scrooge with all the teeming life that fills London, or Loudoun, or anyplace with music — not just jingles that stick to the bottom of your shoe, but beautiful music that matters and makes sense.
The score commingles traditional carols with songs specific to the people in this play, and those songs are judiciously sprinkled through the narrative at moments of high emotion, so it doesn’t feel like you’re watching a string of music videos: it’s a story that sometimes moves its characters to sing. El-Shafey’s lyrics push the story forward. Even her melodies seem to advance along a narrative line. They do revisit mellifluous phrases, so the songs we’ve never heard before begin to sound familiar like the carols, but they unspool. They don’t just take us for a ride around the block and leave us where we started.
In scene one, for example, Brody Brown stands alone on the stage and sings “In the Bleak Midwinter” in a voice so pure and clear that everyone in the house leans toward it, as you might lean over a flower you wanted to smell — everyone but Scrooge, who chases the little beggar away from his door. We can’t go back to flower-smelling after that. Instead we move on to the ghost of Jacob Marley, who storms the miser’s rooms with flashing lights and echo sound effects and fog and a cohort of lesser ghosts who poof and billow through campy-creepy choreography by Kelly Gray.
The play’s most poignant moment combines El-Shafey’s beautiful music with Annie Stokes’s beautiful voice and our own memories of the loves we’ve lost. In “Belle’s Song,” the girl who had agreed to marry young, idealistic Ebeneezer Scrooge, tells him that she’s changed her mind. She sees where money is taking him, and she doesn’t want to go along, so she releases him from all the promises he made to her, “with a full heart for the love of him you used to be,” she sings. When she finally walks away from him, nobody moves: Young Ebeneezer stands alone, gazing toward the lonely future, while Old Ebeneezer gazes down at the love that he lost, and half the people in the audience remember painful moments of their own, and wish that they had said goodbye as beautifully as Belle.
In the end El-Shafey gives old Scrooge a song, because he’s ready to sing in the end. For most of the first act, Erickson sticks his lips out like a beak and pinches his eyes together and walks with a bend at the waist. But then the little Ghost of Christmas Past makes him open his eyes, and the Ghosts of Christmas Present and Future make him open the windows he shut when Belle decided not to marry him, and he joins the rest of us in song. Erickson can carry a tune, but it sounds like he hasn’t tried to carry one in years, which is just the way it should sound in this circumstance. When he sings “I’m Still Here,” we pay attention to the look of wonder on his face, not to his voice. The beak is gone, his eyes are open wide, and he moves about the stage like someone who might like to learn to dance.
If you frequent local theater, watching this play is a little like seeing old friends come home for the holidays. You know these people. They’re wearing beautiful period costumes and they’re using an assortment of London accents, but there’s Kevin Daly, and Tim Griffin, and Christopher Saunders, and Penny Hauffe, who was brilliant in Pygmalion last year. And the children! Fourteen actors in this cast are too young to drive, and half the people in the audience are too young to sit still for two hours on a Friday night. But they do.
“A boy from my class is in this play,” the little girl beside me says. Next time she hopes to be in it herself. She wouldn’t have thought she would like such a thing, but — Look! My gosh! The Ghost of Christmas Future is twenty feet tall! Who wouldn’t want to be in a play with a guy like him!
Next year that’s what half the kids in town will be for Halloween.
Running Time: Two hours, with an intermission.
Once Upon A Christmas Carol plays through December 16, 2012 at Run Rabbit Run Theatre at Franklin Park Arts Center – 36441 Blueridge View Lane, in Purcellville, Virginia. For tickets, purchase them online. There are only tickets available for tomorrow night’s performance. All other performances are sold out!
This review appeared originally in The Shenandoah Press.