★★★★☆ - Delicious
A Christmas Carol regularly ranks as the most-produced play among resident theatres for many reasons -- one being our very familiarity with Charles Dickens’s material. Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill, artistic director of the Capital Repertory Theatre in Albany, NY, claims that the tale practically tells itself. The challenge -- and the opportunity -- is to reconnect emotionally with it. “It has to be heartfelt,” she says. “It has to be real.”
Executive Director, Norma Saldivar, and Director Christopher V. Edwards have successfully met that challenge in the current production by Nevada Conservatory Theatre, at UNLV’s Judy Bayley Theatre through December 17th. Edwards has chosen to shift emphasis from Dicken’s progressive 19th-century theme of charity amid the Industrial Age to its contemporary progressive equivalent, social justice. The contemporary settings and culturally diverse cast help to bring the lessons of Dickens’ timeless tale into the present day -- tailor made for family audiences, running just 90 minutes without intermission!
In addition to casting nearly 20 local “Community Guest Artists”, along with members of the MFA Professional Training Program, and a large number of children from the community, Saldivar and Edwards have juggled this ensemble to upend ethnic, age, and gender expectations: Mariachi Los Jaguares (Desert Pines High School) perform at Fezziwig’s Christmas Eve Party, the Cratchit Family speak both Spanish and English over dinner, and the entire ensemble complement their caroling during the final curtain call with American Sign Language.
These choices purposefully reflect the kind of country we live in today as a 21st century nation, an inclusive one, inviting every member of the audience to see themselves reflected in the classic holiday tale.
“Sometimes, when you do a period piece that deals with current issues, the period tends to give that picture a mask and a separation,” Edwards remarked. Without the Victorian-era setting, “It sits these issues in the laps of audiences… It could be anytime, anyplace, anywhere.”
The script for this version was adapted more than 40 years ago by a young literary manager at the renowned Guthrie Theater, playwright Barbara Fields, who was with us for opening night. Barbara served as playwright-in-residence at the Guthrie from1974 to 1981. Her adaptation has received annual production at The Guthrie for many years since, and at other theaters in Louisville, Kansas City, Chicago and elsewhere. She is a founding member of the Playwrights' Center, Minneapolis, and is a site reporter for the National Endowment for the Arts.
Ebenezer Scrooge (squarely represented as both miserly then eagerly philanthropic in the portrayal by Wesley Mann, known for a role the "Back to the Future" franchise, and an extensive television career) is a mean old businessman who thinks that Christmas is a frivolous holiday, just an excuse for people not to work. Despite his vast fortune, Scrooge hoards money, refusing to give to charity because he believes that the poor are just lazy and deserve no such help. He doesn’t even pay his hardworking and loyal clerk, Bob Cratchit (Angel Mendoza) a fair wage that would allow him to get his sick son, Tiny Tim (Ryzer Spicer), proper medical attention!
Despite Scrooge’s heartlessness, his nephew and only living relative, Fred (Bobby Lang), still wants to spend Christmas with his uncle, but the miser rejects him. On Christmas Eve, Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his former business partner, Jacob Marley (E. Wayne Worley), who is now paying dearly for his heartlessness and lack of generosity. Marley tells Scrooge that three spirits -- the Ghosts of Christmas Past (Rachel Wells-Dawson), Present (Delius Doherty) and Yet to Come (Nate Marble) -- will visit him that night. These phantoms will show old Scrooge how he became this hard-hearted, what he’s lost out on because of it and what will happen to him if he keeps going down this path.
The large and talented ensemble alternately portrays narrators, carolers, pallbearers, revelers and vagabonds. Cathy Allen’s choreography certainly enhanced Fezziwig’s party scene. Musical director Rosanna M. Cota adeptly balanced full-voiced choral numbers against their droning background supporting more ominous moments. Costumes designed by Katie Dennis were appropriate whether dressing festive or funereal events. Lighting by Javier A. Moreno-Bothwell transitioned smoothly and effectively to set the ever-changing mood. The flexibility and simplicity of Jesse L. Soper’s set design was evident throughout the smooth flowing location changes.
The most appreciative spectators attended last night’s opening performance: fans, cast and crew members of all ages, cultural, economic and ethnic backgrounds; students, faculty, artistic, house and production staff; donors, volunteers, residents and tourists; young families with children attending a live theatrical event for the very first time sitting beside older, devoted arts patrons who treasure every opportunity to see a different production of this time-honored classic.
Thomas Mooney said it best in his article entitled Incorporating ASL into American Theatre:
“Communication stems from understanding first, not language, and the ability to listen to each other and ‘put each other in your shoes’… A greater understanding of not only art, but of each other was formed that night between an audience and a cast of people from all different types of life and a universal passion and love was shared. Events like this restore my faith in humanity.”
Amen… and “God bless us, everyone!”
Pictured: Wesley Mann as "Scrooge"