What do you get when you combine Charles Dickens’ classic tale of Christmastime redemption (you know the one) with The Jungle, Upton Sinclair’s exposé of meat packing conditions in early 20th Century Chicago, then add a musical score with much of the stark dissonance of Kurt Weill’s collaborations with Bertolt Brecht?

The answer can be found at Crown City Theatre in William A. Reilly and Gary Lamb’s A Chicago Christmas Carol, a striking musical adaptation of the Dickens favorite with an added dose of darkness and social revolutionary spirit. Though its climactic moments remain as emotionally powerful and inspirational as ever, getting there makes for a considerably rougher, tougher journey than most Christmas Carol adaptations you may have seen in years past—but a highly rewarding one.

Set in a frigid, grimy Chicago circa 1908, Reilly and Lamb’s Christmas Carol takes considerably liberties with Dickens’ original. Ebenezer Scrooge (Lamb) is still a cold-hearted, miserly son of a bitch, but now he is the owner of Fezziwig’s Meats, as dangerous and exploitive an enterprise as any sweatshop ever was. He’s also a cold-hearted Chicago landlord whose favorite phrase must be “Evict them,” one he’s especially eager to use this Christmas (a holiday which this American Scrooge has dubbed “Bah-mas” in deference to his British namesake’s “Bah humbug!”).

Two of Ebenezer’s latest victims are widow Maria Jessup (Susan Grozier) and her preteen daughter Christina (Sadie Calvano), thrown out into the chill Chicago night this Christmas Eve, their only companions a trio of whores (Misha Bouvion, Anne Mannal, and Pamela Taylor) whose cynical “The Whore Song” sets the adult tone for the evening.

Meanwhile, back at the packing plant, Scrooge has sent employee Bob Cratchit (Kevin Michael Moran) out into the frigid night with yet another eviction notice, precisely the kind that Bob’s rabble-rousing, union-organizing, not-so-tiny seventeen-year-old son Tim (Mikhail Roberts) is fighting against.

Scrooge, in the meantime, is receiving his annual Christmas Eve visit from his relentlessly cheerful nephew Freddie (Paul Marchegiani), who jauntily assures his uncle “I Won’t Give Up On You.”

As anyone who’s ever read A Christmas Carol or seen one of its countless film, TV, or stage adaptations can guess, Scrooge’s attempt to fall asleep this Christmas Eve will be hindered by the arrival of the chain-bearing ghost of former partner Jacob Marley (Dave Berges), then by the Spirits of Christmas Past (Bouvion), Present (Louis Silvers), and Future (Bouvion again).

We see Scrooge as a schoolboy taught by the Headmistress From Hell (Mannal), who expresses her educational philosophy in “The Headmistress Song” while poor, lonely Ebenezer dreams of a life as “Robinson Crusoe” and a wedding with Isabella Fezziwig (Paton Ashbrook), his employer’s lovely daughter. (“When We Are Wed”) Such dreams are not meant to be, however, as Ebenezer finds out when Isabella gives back her engagement ring. No matter, reassures Jacob Marley. Scrooge will have “Time Enough For Love” once he has achieved his avaricious ends.

A Chicago Christmas Carol made its first Crown City appearance two years ago. Since then, Reilly’s book and music and Lamb’s lyrics have undergone considerable revision, and an almost entirely new company of actors has assumed the show’s multiple roles and tracks. 2010’s A Chicago Christmas Carol also has a new director (Brent Beerman, more than up to the task), a new choreographer (the inventive Stephanie Pease) and a mostly new design team. Songs this time are accompanied by prerecorded synthesizer tracks (layered by musical director Reilly) in place of Reilly’s live piano accompaniment two years ago.

Though its grim Chicago setting and politically/socially-conscious plot make this Christmas Carol considerably less “Christmassy” than A Christmas Carols tend to be, it more than makes up for this in entertainment value, emotional impact, and the fine performances of its very talented cast.

Four actors (Ashbrook, Calvano, Lamb, and Grozier) appear in single roles, the remaining nine cast members assuming multiple tracks. Lamb’s excellent work as Scrooge benefits from his first-rate acting chops and resonant pipes. Ashbrook makes for a captivating Isabella, both in innocent (“When We Are Wed”) and not so innocent (“Isabella’s Song”) form. Grozier and Calvano do memorable work as mother and daughter.

There are scene-stealing turns by Berges as Jacob Marley, Mannal as the Headmistress, Marchegiani as Freddy, and most particularly Silvers, stopping the show with his razzmatazz “The Gift Of Giving.” Roberts’ powerful rendition of the workers’ anthem “Joe Was A Man (Just Like You And Me)” is another Chicago Christmas Carol highlight. Bouvion channels a pair of very different but equally spectacular divas as the Spirits Of Christmases Past and Future. Moran doubles to strong effect as Bob Cratchit and Mr. Fezziwig (prompting Scrooge to remark amusingly on the resemblance). Kelsey Lee Smith does lovely work in a quartet of guises, and Pamela Taylor is a charismatic presence as always in four very different roles.

Among the evening’s production number highlights are the lively Act One opener (“Believing In Miracles”), the spooky “Save The Likes Of You” (with the entire ensemble embodying some very creepy Ghosts of Sinners Past), and “The Headmistress Song”), all featuring Pease’s imaginative choreography.

Keiko Moreno’s clever set design effectively suggests the grim Chicago setting (the bloody aprons hanging from meat hooks are a nice touch). Tanya Apuya and Caitlin Erin O’Hare have designed a bevy of costumes running the gamut from threadbare to glamorous. Rachel Myles lights the stage dramatically, with some impressive silhouette effects and of footlight-cast shadows. Ben Rovner is assistant director, Kathi Chaplar assistant musical director, Marcus Lamontagne technical director, and Zad Potter and Moreno co-stage managers.

There will be Christmas Carols aplenty this season, but none quite like A Chicago Christmas Carol, a fascinating look back at a time when money-grubbing moguls shared the same city streets with victims of abject poverty. Sound familiar?

Crown City Theater, St. Matthew’s Church, 11031 Camarillo St., North Hollywood.
www.crowncitytheatre.com–Steven Stanley
November 19, 2010

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