Saturday, December 06, 2003

Cricket on the Hearth (Actors' Summit)

World premiere production at Actors' Summit

It’s that time of year when theatres try to pull holiday entertainment out of the bag. Ensemble is running ‘THE GIFT OF THE MAGI,’ The Cleveland Play House has shipped in ‘PLAID TIDINGS,’ Great Lakes Theatre Festival has once again resurrected ‘THE CHRISTMAS CAROL,’ and Cleveland Public Theatre is featuring the farcical ‘MRS. BOB CRATCHET’S WILD CHRISTMAS BINGE.’ Actors’ Summit, rather than do the tried and true, has ventured off into trying to create its own holiday gift to give and give again in the form of Wayne Turney’s attempt to adapt Charles Dickens’ ‘CRICKET ON THE HEARTH’ into a musical.

Transforming the novel ‘CRICKET ON THE HEARTH’ into a play is not a new task. It’s been attempted before. In most instances, the transformation hasn’t worked. Though Turney, musical creator Sebastian Anthony Birch and director MaryJo Alexander give it their all, the show’s world premiere doesn’t quite work either.

The book itself presents complexities not easily overcome. It has an obvious conclusion and lacks the multi-level texturing that has made Dickens’ ‘OLIVER TWIST’ work as the musical ‘OLIVER.’ It lacks humor or great drama.

Alexander has paced the show well, creates attractive stage pictures, and has the cast basically on target in their portrayals. The problem isn’t hers.

The problem is not Turney’s either. Rather than create new conceptual songs, Turney has relied on an operatic technique for the lyrics. He uses dialogue set to music. This allows the plot’s ideas to flow along, but doesn’t give the audience the sound it is used to hearing in musicals. Most modern musicals have songs which have verses followed by a chorus. This allows for familiarity with the repeated sounds and words. Think “Food, Glorious Food” from the musical ‘OLIVER’ based on Dickens’ “OLIVER TWIST.” In addition, the show’s songs don’t allow for ease of listening. Birch’s music is also sometimes hard to warm up to. Much of the music is atonal, and the singers often appear to be singing one tune while the musical accompaniment sounds like it is playing a different melody. A repeated bell sound, a musical thread running through most of the music fits the time of the year, but becomes piercing after hearing it over and over again.

The cast is generally acceptable. The characterizations were clear. Especially effective were Greg Violand as the older love-struck husband, Wayne Turney as Dickens, who narrates the show; Neil Thackaberry, as the mean Tackleton who eventually, as does Scrooge in ‘CHRISTMAS CAROL,’ softens into a nice guy. The singing voices aren’t all strong. This is especially obvious in the choral segments. Several of the cast had trouble in the higher ranges.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: ‘CRICKET ON THE HEARTH’ is a work-in-progress. Whether it will ever turn into a holiday favorite is questionable, but Actors’ Summit deserves credit for trying something new rather than giving us one more repeat of tired traditional holiday material.