By Tina Arth
I was shocked to read in the Director’s Notes that Dan
Murphy, co-director (with Annie Kaiser) of A
Christmas Carol – The Musical at Broadway Rose, had never watched the show
on stage, read the novella, or even seen the cartoon. On reflection, however,
it makes sense – some elements of this musical depart sharply from Dickensian
canon, and may be best addressed with a fresh eye. Perhaps no one raised on
visions of Ebenezer Scrooge as Alastair Sim, Patrick Stewart, or Mr. Magoo
would ever have cast the swarthy, hulking, full-voiced Paul Cosca in the lead
role – but it works beautifully, and this casting anchors a uniquely
entertaining and comic vision of the quintessential holiday classic.
Alan Menken, Lynn Ahrens, and Mike Ockrent teamed up to
create a new version of A Christmas Carol,
staged annually at the Paramount Theatre in Madison Square Garden from 1994
through 2003, and released as a Hallmark television film in 2004. Menken and Ahrens’ 16 songs keep the show
bright and lively, and showcase abundant powerful ensemble work as well as some
stunning solo voices. The Broadway Rose production features a stripped-down
cast (only eight actors), appropriate to the smaller stage and pandemic
limitations, but most actors play numerous roles so all of the key characters
(Scrooge, Tiny Tim, Bob Cratchit, the Ghosts, etc.) are fully represented.
The surprise standout in the cast is Broadway Rose newcomer Victoria Spelman, whose recent time at the Dell’arte School of Physical Theatre paid off in spades. She is hilariously snarky in a brief bit as Scrooge’s housekeeper, but it’s her portrayal of the Ghost of Christmas Past that moves her into the stratosphere. The combination of her costume, gorgeous voice, and comedic flair evoke a vision of Julie Andrews playing the world’s tallest Munchkin. When she is partnered with choreographer Robert Head, who plays Fred, Young Ebenezer, and a host of other roles, the duo find perfect harmony as vocalists and dancers, bringing the show some of its most captivating moments.
William Shindler is another unexpected delight as both Marley and the Ghost of Christmas Present – the script allows for a lighthearted approach, and Shindler takes full advantage. Broadway Rose newcomer Valentina Silva’s petite frame allows her to believably play both adult and child roles, while making full use of her clear and rich soprano range. Speaking of petite – young Francesco Germano’s stage presence in his acting debut as Tiny Tim (and others) is unforgettable – when he’s on stage, it’s hard to see anyone else. However, it’s never possible to entirely overlook Cosca’s Scrooge. Despite his substantial frame, he manages to shrink and grow as the moment requires, and his big-voiced “Nothing To Do With Me” sets the stage perfectly for what will follow.
Robert Vaughn’s scenic design, an elaborate London backdrop, creates just the right mood while allowing for nearly instantaneous changes of scenery, a feat somehow matched by costume designer Sydney Dufka. The costumes are elaborate and frequently whimsical, and the eight cast members are able to change clothes (and roles) in the time it takes for a single actor to walk across the stage. Music Director/Conductor Darcy White performs the double miracle of turning eight vocalists into a massive ensemble while four musicians become an orchestra.
No matter how many versions of A Christmas Carol you may have seen, do not miss this fresh and funny take – it’s the perfect way to kick off the most wonderful time of the year!
A Christmas Carol is playing at Broadway Rose’s New Stage, 12850 SW Grant Avenue, Tigard through Thursday, December 23d.