Saturday, November 27, 2004

The Christmas Carol Rag (Kalliope)

Kalliope’s ‘THE CHRISTMAS CAROL RAG’ a lesser holiday gift

‘Tis the season to be jolly. Well, that may be true for most of us, but this is a tough time of year for theatrical producers. There just aren’t enough good holiday shows. Yes, there’s the old chestnut, ‘A CHRISTMAS CAROL’ but how many times can a theatre do that script and still grab audiences? Okay, Great Lakes Theatre Festival has been doing the show for a million years (or so it seems) and keeps pulling in the crowds, but most theatres aren’t that lucky and don’t want to duplicate the same thing. So, the search for a viable holiday show becomes a major headache for theatres.

In this search, Kalliope Stage, Cleveland’s only venue dedicated to musical theatre, stumbled upon ‘THE CHRISTMAS CAROL RAG.’ The show comes with good credentials. It received the 2002-2003 Charles MacArthur Award for Outstanding New Musical, given by the Washington, DC theatre critics. Of course this was for the Signature Theatre’s staging by the their brilliant Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer. Eric (yes, I can call him by his first name, having volunteered at the theatre while I was spending an extended sabbatical in the DC area), in his search for a holiday show probably said, "We can dig up the old Scrooge chestnut, cast a female lead, put in some turn-of-the-century ragtime tunes, set it in New York and we'll have a blast." And, in Shaeffer’s hands and ingenious mind, it worked well. In lesser hands, well....

Playwright Norman Allen has adopted Dicken’s ‘CHRISTMAS CAROL’ by shifting the emphasis from a male Scrooge to a female. Evelyn Scrooge is a bitter older woman. As has happened in the umpteen staged editions,14 film versions and 27 TV movies about the male version of the character, the ghosts that come to visit and make this female version of the originator of the phrase “bah-humbug” see the evilness of her deeds. In this edition, we understand why she is so bitter. A meager upbringing, the death of her beloved sister and a failed love affair all have given her a nasty disposition. But, true to the spirit of the season, all comes out well in the end.

That is, all comes out well for the characters. As for the audience who attend the Kalliope Stage version, I’m not so sure.

Part of the problem with the production is that the music doesn’t always fit into the story line. For those of us who like plays to have a beginning, middle and end in which all the parts fit together, the format is a little unnerving.

Then there are the production qualities. The Kalliope Stage is postage stamp small. This is an advantage in such shows as their superlative ‘THE SUMMER OF ‘42,’ but is problematic when director Paul Gurgol tries to shove 19 performers onto the small platforms. Often the sight is that of a mob scene with people dodging around each other.

Gurgol shows little of his usual directing genius in this show. For example, he had Mrs. Scrooge (Adina Bloom) sing all three of her major songs in exactly the same spot on stage, looking exactly the same way, all with no gestures and controlled facial expressions. Bloom is noted for her dynamic vocal sounds and overblown facial gyrations. She is best when she does her Ethel Merman thing. Restricting her physically while singing takes away some of her power. The songs sounded good, but could have been so much more if she hadn’t been physically hand- cuffed.

The vocal elements of the show were generally fine, but much of the acting was overdone and unbelievable. Yes, the tale is a fable, but we still must believe the characters are real.

Highlights of the show include: “Where Did Robinson Crusoe Go?” (I told you the songs don’t fit into the story line), was well executed. This is a vaudeville act with tap dancing by Gurgol. “Go Tell It on the Mountain” (can you believe a Dickens-based show with that spiritual) rocked the house. On the other hand, “If I Were On The Stage” was over the top with affected acting and a mockingly bad Yiddish accent by one of the characters was embarrassing. Bottom line--if you can’t do an accent well, don’t use one!

Brad Wyner’s piano accompaniment was top notch as were performances by Bloom, Chris Pohl, Elizabeth Rubino and Marni Task.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Maybe in the hands of Eric Schaeffer at DC’s Signature Theatre ‘THE CHRISTMAS CAROL RAG’ was an award winner. The same can’t be said for KALLIOPE STAGE’s version. The show isn’t terrible, but it sure isn’t the best gift for the holiday season.