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Rep’s A Christmas Carol Relevant, Redemptive

Theater Review

Dec. 9, 2010
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Although based on a novel written 167 years ago, The Milwaukee Rep’s 35th annual production of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol feels regrettably relevant in an inclement economic era of mass unemployment and austere household finances. Director Joseph Hanreddy could easily have “modernized” the production without losing a beat. As it happens, the familiar story of redemption is played out in the traditional streets, offices and drawing rooms of Victorian London. Scenic designer Margorie Bradley Kellogg successfully evokes an overcrowded metropolis struggling to hold on to tradition in the face of rapid industrialization, from the festive parlors right down to the soot-stained buildings.

Rep veteran James Pickering portrays Ebeneezer Scrooge with efficacious cold-heartedness, although not as cruel as in past productions. This works to the story’s advantage, as even when Scrooge is giving the bum’s rush to orphan beggars or hurling paper-weights at the head of his nephew, we can sense the (very) dim spark of a kinder soul buried underneath years of emotional sclerosis. What hope, after all, for the truly lost?

The Scrooge role presents unique challenges. For much of the play, the character is silent, standing in the background watching scenes unfold. Pickering’s physical bearing and facial expressions capture the helpless exasperation of a man being unwillingly dragged down memory lane, forced to revisit a lifetime of mistakes, disappointment and heartbreak.

The production is enriched by Rep residents Lee Ernst, Jonathan Daly, Laura Gordon and Deborah Staples, all leading-role talents who tackle multiple supporting parts superbly. Regional favorite Jonathan Smoots devours his bits as the Ghosts of Jacob Marley and Christmas Present, and Drew Brhel scores a side-splitting hat-trick as Mr. Grimgrind / Mr. Fezziwig / Mr. Topper.

The large cast of child actors was well rehearsed and choreographed, although a bit hard to hear in places. Simon Johnson’s Tiny Tim would break the heart of even the most jaded reviewer. Hanreddy keeps things moving along at a good pace, with many era-appropriate carols interspersed nicely.

A Christmas Carol
runs through Dec. 26 at The Pabst Theatre


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