The message this time of year is that Christmas is a time for good tidings of great joy, for not only the youngsters but those young at heart and everyone in between. We never have enough time to say or do all that we wish to say and do, so we must do as much as we can with the time that we have. And this Christmas season that includes traveling up to the Gaithersburg Arts Barn to see the Sandy Spring Theatre Group’s production of Scrooge! The Musical. Directed by Ken Kemp with musical direction by Lauren-Nicole Gabel, this musical adaptation of the Dickens’ classic (with Music, Book, and Lyrics by Leslie Bricusse) will give you all the hilly-ho good nature you need at this festive time of year.
How easy it is to forget that the classic A Christmas Carol story takes place in a time long before our own, London town in 1843. This charming period in history comes with certain expectations in the way it appears and Costume Designer Kristie Milewski lives up to those expectations with a tremendous effort to ensure that each filthy little street urchin and merchant looks as if they were swept straight up from the streets of Victorian London and transported for the audiences’ viewing pleasure onto the stage. The ill-fitting rags on the children and the subdued yet warm tones in the gowns for the women are a wonderful touch that make watching the cast of nearly 30 mill about during the crowded city-street scenes quite wonderful.
Set Designer Britney Mongold takes a slightly whimsical approach to her scenic paintings that decorate the street. Shop fronts, looking as if they’ve sprung from the pages of Dickens’ novel—if Dickens’ novel had been illustrated in full color—flank either side of the stage, including the butcher and the baker and of course the toy shop! It’s Mongold’s clever use of a fading screen at the back of the stage that makes for some rather intriguing ‘special effects’ throughout the production, perfectly suitable for the arrival of various apparitions. After all, this is a ghost story, and what better way to make a ghost appear spooky than to highlight him in the shadows of a screen, present one minute and gone the next?
Musical Director Lauren-Nicole Gabel works exceptionally well with the principle performers to ensure that they imbue their characters with rich emotions and crystal clear notes. The opening and closing numbers to the production were a bit of a struggle for the ensemble; difficult harmonies and notes off-key, but this might easily be chalked up to ‘opening night jitters.’ There were also times when the musical track unfortunately drowned some of these talented singers in smaller group numbers like “Father Christmas” and “The Milk of Human Kindness.” But for the most part the ensemble was engaging and very enthusiastic, smiles all around especially for “Thank You Very Much.”
Director Ken Kemp mounts a fine production with his balance of ensemble verses principles in the show. More often than not a musical of this caliber is overrun with additional children or adult ensemble members which crowd the stage, but Kemp chose the perfect number of small children to make the chorus numbers lively without feeling cramped and the right number of adults (including some brilliant double-casting) to make the street scenes feel crowded but not squashed. Having all of the right singing principles in the right role as well is a mark of excellence on Kemp’s production.
Hilly-ho and cheer is widely spread when the Fezziwig family take to the stage during “December the 25th.” Master Fezziwig (Gary Carl Fackenthall) and the Missus (BJ Bergman Angstadt) give a robust and hearty rendition of that particular number, spreading jolly good tidings all across the stage. Fackenthall’s generously loud sound echoes that of Angstadt’s and the couple make merry adding a great deal of levity to the performance in just this one scene. They could truly be called ‘scene-stealers,’ especially Angstadt and her swaggering sway as she tries to get every man on stage to dance with her.
Jacob Marley (Tony Pisarra) who was dead to begin with, brings a new meaning to being “haunted by a Christmas spirit.” Pisarra takes a rough and dark interpretation to the character which makes him terribly frightening; eking out the true nature of Dickens’ ghostly visit in hopes of terrifying old Scrooge into changing. Pisarra’s rich and gravelly voice is perfect for this role and listening to him patter and roar his way through “Make the Most of this World” sends a little shiver up your spine.
It is the gentle Ghost of Christmas Past (Kaycie Goral) that sheds a more delicate light on the situation. With a pristine voice, her solo “Love While You Can” is a bittersweet reminder that time is short and life is precious. Goral’s voice adds a wonderful fourth to the four-part harmony of “Happiness,” by far the most beautiful and well executed song in the production. This number features Young Ebenezer (Gabriel T. Potter) and Isabel (Lauren-Nicole Gabel), as well Scrooge and the aforementioned apparition. Together their voices float daintily through the melody, blending angelic sounds that truly ring the bells of happiness for all to hear.
Potter and Gabel give a touching, if not heart-wrenching scene when she is forced to break the young fool’s heart, which leads into a stunning duet, “You-You,” sung by Potter and Scrooge (Bob Schwartz). Potter’s gently wounded emotions seep into his glistening tenor tones while the deeply regretful Schwartz carries the baritone lines of this number, making it the second best song in the production.
The Ghost of Christmas Present (Jim Eustice) is a jolly good soul with a slightly snarky sense of humor. From the moment he sweeps onto the stage in his enormously fabulous robes and holly crown there is a good sense of giddiness that follows in his wake. Eustice leads Scrooge and company in a rousing rendition if “I Like Life” inspiring bursts of love and true Christmas spirit as he does. Guiding Scrooge to the Cratchit family home, Eustice is the epitome of perfection in this role.
Bob Cratchit (Chris Penick) while not the strongest of singers, is a talented actor who uses his gestures and facial expressions to carry the joviality of his song, “Christmas Children.” His accent, excepting Scrooge’s, is the most clearly articulated in the production. Cratchit’s children Kathy (Rebecca Korn) and Tiny Tim (Clara Harney) have exceptionally gifted voices that are clear like bells and soft like angels. Harney is precious beyond compare and leads the Cratchit family in the delightfully dulcet carol “The Beautiful Day.” Late in Act II when the inevitable becomes Tiny Tim it is Penick’s moving performance in the churchyard that strikes the hearts of the audience, drawing forth tears for a future that may yet still come true.
But the man of the hour, Mr. Bob Schwartz, truly understands the finer and more subtle nuances of playing Ebenezer Scrooge. There is a pinched flare of anger, but not fury, which burbles in his earlier numbers like “M.O.N.E.Y.” and “I Hate People,” that is also infused with a hint of humor as he bemoans his existence among the dreary and impoverished people of London. Schwartz digs deep to find raw emotions and expose them for solos like the reprise of “Happiness.” And it is truly touching, albeit haunting and sorrowful, when he sings “A Better Life.” Schwartz has a stunning voice that isn’t truly revealed until his duet and quartet just before the end of Act I, making for a brilliant surprise when you finally hear him sing as a singer, rather than singing as a character singer in the beginning of the show. Balancing the transformation against all of his other textually defined characteristics; Schwartz has a handle on the miser, making him see life and love in a brand new light.
Don’t miss this heart-warming Scrooge! The Musical. It is recommended that you purchase tickets in advance for this festive merriment as several shows have already sold out.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 20 minutes, with one intermission.
Scrooge! The Musical plays through December 22, 2013 at the Sandy Spring Theatre Group at the Gaithersburg Arts Barn—311 Kent Square Road in Gaithersburg, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 258-6394, or purchase them online.
Watch the entire film of the 1970 film Scrooge! The Musical with Albert Finney.