Just when you think there’s no new way to tell Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, along comes an approach so fresh and an execution so spectacular, it makes you ignore the “I’ve seen enough Christmas Carols to last me a lifetime” voice inside your head and be exceedingly glad you did.
The Dickens adaptation in question is Tom Mula’s Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol, whose brilliant L.A Premiere staging by producer-director Casey Kringlen makes it must-see holiday entertainment for anyone who loves great theater, be it grand or intimate, or in this case a bit of both.
Mula first wrote Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol as a one-act solo performance in response to a question posed by his young niece, to wit: Why didn’t Marley get the second chance that Scrooge did? Mula’s solo piece (which he himself performed) was later turned into the four-actor two-act which Kringlen and company have been inspired to stage in a 7000 sq. ft. downtown L.A. warehouse-turned-performance space.
Presented in-the-round with minimal scenic design, its cast dressed simply in contemporary black, Kringlen’s Carol takes Mula’s script and adds to it an element theater shares with old-time radio, namely imagination, the result of which makes for as thrilling a theatrical experience as you’re likely to experience this holiday season.
Mula’s script does indeed fulfill his niece’s request to give old Jacob his own chance at redemption, albeit without the added benefit of still being alive and kicking, since Dickens’ tale did, after all, begin as Mula’s does, with the words “Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.”
It is therefore in the afterlife that Jacob learns that he has been assigned twenty-four hours to effect in Scrooge a 180-degree change of heart, prompting Marley to remark that in twenty-four years, he might be able to do something, but in twenty-four hours? Impossible!
No matter his objections, Jacob is soon joined by Bogle (pronounced BO-gull), a hunky blond sprite who pops out of Marley’s ear and plants the idea of “spirits” in old Jacob’s head, inspiring him to come up with the plan to have a trio of ghosts (which Marley himself will embody in three different guises) visit Scrooge on three successive nights.
Though ultimately every bit as inspiring as Dickens’ original, there’s considerably more horror in Mula’s version, which doesn’t introduce Scrooge as a character until about forty-five minutes in, instead taking Marley and us in the audience on a Bogle-guided trip through hell, in which we ourselves may be amongst the monsters lurking there.
Flashbacks also allow us to relive Jacob’s painful childhood, his mother’s untimely death, the bullying he underwent by an older apprentice until he met the new boy Scrooge, who later became his business partner.
Kringlen’s oh so imaginative minimalist staging ups the macabre by entrusting the cast with much of the lighting, hand-held flashlights sending beams of light through the stage fog which pervades the cavernous Six01 Studio, and if you’ve ever seen what a face looks like when lit from directly below, you’ll get an idea of how cast members are transformed into demons (and other assorted specters) simply by the direction the light beam is pointed. At other times, those flashlights cast film noir shadows on the walls behind the characters at whom they are pointed. A pair of fluorescent tubes are used ingeniously as well, as are lights shining from above, though considerably fewer in number than in a usual theatrical setting.
Live music performed by Brian Wood plus appropriately spooky sound effects, also created live, make Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol the next best thing to spending time in an honest-to-goodness haunted house.
Kringlen makes imaginative use of a movable scaffold which serves numerous uses, one of which is to offer Bogle a perch from which to observe the action below, gargoyle-like, another of which is to allow the Ghost Of Christmas Yet To Come to tower over us, a frightening black figure we must look up, way up, to see.
To reveal more of the tricks Kringlen and company have up their sleeves would be to spoil the many surprises which lie in store for theatergoers lucky enough to score tickets to the production’s remaining performances.
In the talented four-member ensemble, Travis Stanberry makes for an appropriately crabby, cranky Scrooge and Keri Blunt has effective moments in numerous cameo roles.
Ultimately, however, it is stars Jeff Elam and Ian Andrew Jones whose memorable performances as Marley and Bogle make Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol as emotionally powerful as it is. Elam digs deep into the soul of a man whose traumatic childhood has left scars every bit as deep as those of his partner Ebenezer Scrooge. As for Bogle, a terrific Jones plays him with a cocky Cockney accent, a devilish glint in the eyes, and a muscular sex appeal.
Oh, and did I mention that all four performers display triple-threat talents in a musical prologue that has the quartet singing and tap-dancing and handing out holiday cookies as preshow entertainment?
A couple more things that make this production especially miraculous:
A) Kringlen had just found himself unexpectedly denied the rights to this first L.A. staging of Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol (in hopes of a more “prestigious” production) when the three-minute video he had prepared as part of his Kickstarter campaign to fund the production convinced Mula to take a chance on Kringlen’s vision. (Memo to Tom Mula: Your confidence in Casey was more than justified.)
B) With only seconds remaining before last night’s deadline, last-minute contributions sent Kringlen’s Kickstarter campaign just over its $12,000 goal, without which the entire cost of production would have landed on its producer-director’s shoulders. Can you say “Whew!”?
Additional kudos go out to technical director Rob Corn and stage manager Kaitlin Leong. Hopefully, upcoming audiences will not be left program-less as they were on Opening Night. Cast and crew deserve to be remembered long after the performance is over.
With its combination of thrills and chills and a grand finale that moved this reviewer to shed a tear or two, Casey Kringlen’s vision of Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol is a grownup holiday treat that even the Grinch would love.
Note: Dress warmly. A warehouse can get chilly on a December night.
Six01 Studio, 601 S. Anderson Street, Los Angeles.
December 14, 2012
Photos: Dove Huntley