When the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse last produced A Christmas Carol in 1998, the family musical's daytime performances ran concurrently with evening performances of Miracle on 34th Street. I was a member of Carol's cast at the time, and as I recall, we kind of thought the shows should have swapped positions; the chipper, candy-colored Miracle seemed ideal for kids, while the frequently dark Charles Dickens tale, with its themes of regret and mortality, appeared better-suited to a more mature crowd.
Perhaps remembering this, director Tom Walljasper (who played Bob Cratchitt in both '98 and '94) has, for Circa '21's latest Christmas Carol, considerably lightened its tone. He hasn't sugar-coated Dickens' story - Phil McKinley's and Suzanne Buhrer's serious, first-rate adaptation remains intact - yet there's a sense of adventure, of happy mischief on display here that's rather inspiring. On Saturday, there must have been more than 200 grade-schoolers in attendance, and they composed one of the least restless, most engrossed family-show audiences I've sat amongst in years. (One of the children appeared especially engrossed; when the house lights came up for the intermission, a disappointed young voice exclaimed, "Aw, man ... !")
Much of the overall mood can be found in its Ebenezer Scrooge, played by Adam Michael Lewis. A felicitous comedian with dynamic stage energy, Lewis, in a gray wig, doesn't do much to convey the character's age, but he does something that's more beneficial for a young audience: He suggests the old man's life force. Lewis makes Scrooge a roaring caricature of miserliness and greed - his exuberant "Money" solo finds the actor kicking up his heels while pinching pennies - and he stretches his aggrieved "Bah!"s into three or four syllables; in Lewis' hands, Scrooge is enjoyably hateful, and his torment by the visiting spirits causes the kids in the crowd to laugh delightedly.
For a goodly part of A Christmas Carol's length, though, Scrooge is a mere spectator, and Walljasper has done a fine job of guiding his supporting ensemble to portrayals that exude a friskiness of spirit without sacrificing the tale's gravity. With the exceptions of Lewis and the solid, amiable Don Hepner, whose Charles Dickens narrates the tale, the other performers each assume more than one role - this Christmas Carol could be described as Dickensian vaudeville - and on occasion, Walljasper's shrewd casting minimizes the story's built-in solemnity and gloom.
One sequence that could conceivably trouble youngsters, for example, features the Cratchitts performing a mournful ballad after the death of Tiny Tim (an adorable Jordan Schmidt). Yet while the moment is still moving, its sadness is lightened because Brad Hauskins, who plays Bob Cratchitt, has just returned from playing a comedically loutish undertaker in the previous scene (a bit of double-casting that wasn't employed in Circa '21's previous Carols); kids can be touched by Hauskins' Cratchitt performance while still recognizing the inventive play-acting beneath it, which helps alleviate the pathos.
More frequently, though, it's the performers themselves that provide necessary levity. Tristan Tapscott is full of bonhomie as Scrooge's nephew Fred - behind suitably creepy masks, he's also a spooky, effective Jacob Marley and Christmas Future - and Erin Churchill's (nee Dickerson's) drunken charwoman is a joyous contrast to her Christmas Past, whose soothing cadences are reminiscent of a more-knowing Glinda the Good Witch. (An in-joke to audiences of Circa '21's current evening production: Churchill's ghost appears to be wearing the actress' outfit from the Irving Berlin's White Christmas finale.)
Kari Orf and David Geinosky (who, as Young Scrooge, expertly mimics Lewis' vocal cadences) vacillate between sincerity and Cockney deviousness with sly skill, Liz J. Millea boasts gorgeous vocals and a radiant presence, and George Schulz's Fezziwig and Christmas Present are like the physical embodiments of a bear hug; the actor's boisterousness is wonderfully welcome (even though Present's entrance may have convinced the kids that they were welcoming someone else, based on the shrieks of "Santa!" that greeted his arrival). Lauren Van Speybroeck, meanwhile, follows her magnificent Charlotte's Web turn with equally impressive work here; incredibly, the sixth-grader's English accent, which she maintains even while singing, is more consistent than most of her adult co-stars'.
Walljasper orchestrates the actors' shuffling of characters, and the constant locale-switches, with graceful, nearly continuous movement - the staging provides the sensation of traveling through time - and delivers marvelous fringe touches; the swirling figures that terrify Scrooge have a suggestive, spectral eeriness. Beautifully sung and featuring topnotch set and costume design, my only quibble would be with the excessively busy lighting effects in the opening scenes; we're given no sense, as we should, of how gray and dour Scrooge's world is before his supernatural visitations occur. (You've never seen Dickensian London so bursting with color.) Once the flashbacks begin, however, Justin Gebhardt's vibrant hues seem just right, especially during a jolly dance scene in Fezziwig's office, when the amber lighting provides its own burst of holiday spirit; like A Christmas Carol itself, it provides a warm, seasonal glow.
For tickets, call (309) 786-7733 extension 2.