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A Christmas Carol
by Charles Dickens
Adapted by Michael Wilson
Directed by Hana S. Sharif
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
November 25, 2022

Paul Aguirre, Guiesseppe Jones
Photo by T. Charles Erickson Photo
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’s holiday tradition is continuing with their lively production of Charles Dickens’s holiday classic, A Christmas Carol. The same adaptation by Michael Wilson that was staged to acclaim last season is back this year, and it seems to have found a new energy the second time around. With much of the same cast and the same stunning production values, the show carries an enduring message and a spirit that only seems more moving this year.

The story is well-known, following the classic Dickens tale with a few modifications, as the miserly, Christmas-hating Ebenezer Scrooge is confronted by a series of ghosts and forced to come to terms with who he was and what he has become, with the chance of reformation.  The casting is mostly the same as last year, and the players are more effective than ever–with Guiesseppe Jones at the center as Scrooge. Jones is joined again by Armando McClain as Scrooge’s longsuffering but optimistic clerk Bob Cratchit; Michael James Reed in a dual role as Scrooge’s maid Mrs. Dilber and the persistent ghost of his late business partner, Jacob Marley; Laakan McHardy, Paul Aguirre, and Eric Dean White as the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, as well as “real-world” merchants in debt to Scrooge; and a host of others repeating their roles from last year, joined by a few newcomers like Peterson Townsend as Scrooge’s cheerful nephew, Fred, as well as the younger adult version of Scrooge himself. There’s also a vibrant youth ensemble in the child and teen roles, split into two groups performing on alternating nights–I saw the “Green” ensemble.

It’s a strong cast all around, with Jones, Reed, and all three Spirits as the standouts once again, along with McClain’s eminently likable Cratchit, and Townsend making a strong impression as Fred. The Rep is also collaborating with local organizations COCA and Big Muddy Dance Company, along with Webster Conservatory, adding cohesive energy to the ensemble.

The production values are as stunning as ever, with the set design by Tim Mackabee, costumes by Dede Ayite, lighting by Seth Reiser, and projections by Hana Kim all contributing to the alternately dramatic, funny, and truly thrilling tone of the production. There’s also excellent work from composers and sound designers Nathan A. Roberts and Charles Coes as well as music director Tre’von Griffith. The music is a surprisingly effective blend of traditional European folk music, familiar carols, and hip-hop influences including a rap sequence and eye-catching dancing, inventively choreographed by Kirven Douthit-Boyd. 

There have been so many versions of A Christmas Carol over the years, and the material has proven to hold up well in various forms, because the classic themes of generosity, kindness, and redemption endure throughout the generations. With the Rep’s intention of making this show an annual event, I thought it might seem stale doing the same adaptation again, but I was mistaken. In fact, this year’s version is even better than last time. It might be nice to see them change up the  adaptations at some point, but this one works so well with all the performance and technical elements pitched just right. It’s an ideal theatrical start to the holiday season in St. Louis.

Cast of A Christmas Carol
Photo by T. Charles Erickson Photo
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting A Christmas Carol until December 30, 2022

This review was originally published at KDHX

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A Christmas Carol
by Charles Dickens
Adapted by Michael Wilson
Directed by Hana S. Sharif
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
December 10, 2021

Giuesseppe Jones (center) and cast of A Christmas Carol
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

A Christmas Carol is a tale that has been adapted many times, showing the versatility of the source, the classic Charles Dickens novel. For more than a century and a half, the story has been adapted numerous times, for stage, radio, big screen and small. It’s been musicalized, condensed, expanded, and set in different times and places. Now, with plans of establishing an annual tradition, the Rep has brought it to the stage in a version that’s alternately comic and serious, with not a little bit of an ominous, even horror-like tone at times. Utilizing the impressive resources of the Rep, both in terms of technical abilities and the talents of of an excellent cast, crew, and creative team, this is a production that honors the timeless classic while at the same time making it immediate and relatable for modern audiences. 

Upon reflection, I’ve realized that I’ve seen quite a few adaptions of this story over the years, mostly on film and TV, but also including the last time the Rep staged a production five years ago. What I’ve noticed from seeing all these versions is that A Christmas Carol as a story is especially versatile in terms of how it can be adapted depending upon the time, circumstances, and medium. For this new Rep production, the focus seems to be on a more darkly comic interpretation of the material, blended with poignant drama at important moments, and an extensive use of music and striking visuals in telling the familiar story of the confrontation and redemption of miserly moneylender Ebenezer Scrooge (Guiesseppe Jones). The casting of one performer, Michael James Reed, as two highly contrasting characters–Scrooge’s whimsical housekeeper Mrs. Dilber and an ominous, frightening version of the ghost of Scrooge’s late business partner, Jacob Marley–highlights the overall tone of the piece, going for broad comedy on occasion and shifting to near-horror when appropriate. The Ghosts of Christmas Past (Laakan McHardy), Present (Paul Aguirre), and Future (Eric Dean White)–who also double as merchant characters who owe debts to Scrooge–reflect this duality of tone, as well. Also, as is usual for this story, Scrooge’s clerk Bob Cratchit (Armando McClain) and his family, especially his young, ailing son Tiny Tim (Rian Amerikal Page) are the focus for much of the poignancy and emotion.

The staging is energetic and briskly paced, with a lot of focus on music and technical effects, in support of the excellent cast. The use of music–mostly traditional English and European carols and folk songs with some original music and some more modern arrangements–is impressive, as well, with strong work from music director Tre’von Griffith, choreographer Kirven Douthit-Boyd, and composers/sound designers Nathan A. Roberts and Charles Coes. The music and dance–including a rap sequence–works well with the story and supports the action and emotion especially well.  Also contributing to overall technically stunning look and atmosphere of the piece are set designer Tim Mackabee with a vividly realized and versatile set, along with lighting designer Seth Reiser, projections designer Hana Kim, and costume designer Dede Ayite who provides meticulously detailed outfits for the characters ranging in style from traditional Victorian English to the more steampunk-ish look of the Ghost of Christmas Future and his living counterpart, a clockmaker and inventor. The overall design of this show, and the truly thrilling flying effects with Marley, provide for much of the visual impact of the show while supporting the emotional arc of the story.

As for the cast, it’s a fairly large ensemble and everyone is excellent, from Jones as an energetic, miserly and believably softening Scrooge, to McClain and Michelle Hand as the hardworking Cratchits, to Reed in impressively contrasting performances as Mrs. Dilber and Marley. There’s also impressive work from  McHardy, Aguirre, and White as the ghosts and their non-ghost counterparts. Also excellent are Raffael Sears in a dual role as Young Scrooge and Scrooge’s nephew, Fred; and Alegra Batara as both Young Scrooge’s onetime fiancée, Belle, and Fred’s wife. The entire ensemble is strong, as well, including a superb Youth Ensemble–I saw the “Green” group (there is also a “Blue” group that alternates with the Green group). 

A Christmas Carol is a holiday classic story that most people with recognize to some degree. Being a “ghost story” in essence, this tale always has its scarier scenes, but this version emphasizes a lot of the intense moments, so parents should consider that when deciding whether to bring small children. It’s a bit different staging-wise than other versions you may have seen, but this is such a versatile story and this version has a lot of appeal for today’s audiences, with a top-notch cast and truly stunning production values. It’s a timeless tale for the ages, and the Rep’s production tells this classic tale with truth and vibrancy.

Cast of A Christmas Carol
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting A Christmas Carol until December 23, 2021

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Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis 2019
May 11, 2019

As I noted in my last review, this year’s Tennessee Williams Festival opened with a stunning production of The Night of the Iguana. As is usual, however, the main stage production is not the only thing the festival has to offer. Here are two other excellent shows from the festival:

A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur
by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Kari Ely

Kelley Weber, Maggie Wininger, Julie Layton, Ellie Schwetye
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis

A strong local cast and brisk staging are the highlights of this show, one of Williams’ later plays originally staged in 1979. Set in a Central West End apartment in the 1930s, this is a funny, poignant piece that features the common Williams theme of loneliness, but the tone is more comic than usual. In fact, it almost has a sitcom-like feel at times, which might be part of what lends to the theory (touted in the festival’s advertising) that this play was an inspiration for the 1980s comedy series The Golden Girls. On my viewing, I would say resemblances to that series are slight, and the play’s appeal rests more in its portrayal of its time, setting, and character situations, along with the very “St. Louis” vibe of the piece.

The story emphasizes class differences and individual aspirations as well as personal hopes and dreams, along with relationships among very different women who initially have wildly different goals. For Bodey (Kelley Weber), the middle-aged single daughter of German immigrants, her hope seems to revolve around picnics at Creve Coeur Lake and setting up her also single twin brother–the unseen but much talked-about Buddy–with Bodey’s younger, Southern-born high school teacher roommate Dorothea, or “Dottie” (Maggie Wininger). Dottie, however, has other plans that revolve largely around another unseen but much discussed character, her school’s principal, Ralph Ellis. As Bodey prepares food and tries to convince Dottie to go on an outing to the lake with her, Dottie is determined to stay home and wait for an expected phone call from Ralph, and both women are surprised at different times by two guests. First, there’s the social-climbing Helena (Julie Layton), who works with Dottie and hopes to get her to move into an expensive, more fashionable apartment with her. Then, there’s Miss Sophie Gluck (Ellie Schwetye), a German-born neighbor in the apartment building whose mother has recently died and who Bodey has been trying to console. As the story progresses, much is revealed about the motives of the various women, as well as the truth about the objects of their aspirations.

It’s a fast-moving, broadly comic piece with a clear undertone of melancholy, and the casting is excellent, from Weber’s determined, down-to-earth Bodey to Wininger’s dreamy and conflicted Dottie, to Layton’s haughty Helena. Schwetye, as the grieving, awkward Sophie, is a standout, with a memorable performance that is at equal turns poignant and broadly comic. The staging is fast-paced, with some impressive moments of physical comedy along with the strong characterizations.

The production values are also excellent, with a detailed and somewhat whimsical recreation of a 1930s St. Louis apartment by scenic designer Ali Strelchun, and excellent costumes by Garth Dunbar, lighting by David LaRose, and sound by Kareem Deanes. It’s a fun, compelling treat of a performance of a show that many viewers may not have heard of. It’s well worth checking out.

Tennessee Williams Festival is presenting A Lovely Sunday For Creve Coeur upstairs at the Grandel Theatre until May 19, 2019

“Dear Mr.Williams”
Written and Performed by Bryan Batt
Directed and Developed with Michael Wilson

Bryan Batt
Photo by Suzy Gorman
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis

Also on stage this weekend was another show that ran for three performances. Dear Mr. Williams is a one-man show written and performed by Bryan Batt, who is probably best known for his role on the television show Mad Men. Here, Batt has collaborated with director Michael Wilson to present a highly personal show, portraying how Tennessee Williams and his plays have inspired Batt throughout his life.

This was a fascinating show, part dramatization and part autobiographical monologue, as Batt intersperses the story of his own life growing up in New Orleans with dramatized quotes from Williams about the city he also loved, as well as theatre, sexuality, and more. The story is poignant and personal, with Batt telling how his family’s history sometimes coincided with Williams’ plays, and also how he discovered Williams’ plays along with his journey into acting as well as coming to terms with his sexuality in the 1970s and early 1980s. Batt has a strong stage presence and personable manner, and his transitions between “Bryan” and “Tennessee” were, for the most part, seamless, although at times the transitions were so quick that they could be confusing. Still, this was an intriguing and fascinating portrayal.

Technical director and stage manager Michael B. Perkins also contributed to the simple but impressive staging, although Batt–and his portrayal of Williams–are front and center. It was a witty, poignant, and memorable performance, working well in the small but elegant space in the Curtain Call lounge. It’s another strong example of the variety and excellence on display at the Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis.

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