It wouldn’t be December without Christmas carols or Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group’s latest gives Los Angeles theatergoers both in just under an hour and performed with such Zombie Joe flair that it’s hard to imagine even Christmas Carol haters not falling for this show. As for those with more traditional tastes, there’s more than enough authentic Dickens to have you leaving Zombie Joe’s Underground with a smile on your face and maybe even the traces of a few tears on your cheeks.

AChristmasCarol@ZJU_Pic1 An eclectic bunch of Christmas’s Greatest Hits old and new (“The First Noel,” “All I Want For Christmas,” “Ave Maria,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” and “Carol Of The Bells”) starts the evening on a musical note, performed by Steam-Punk Chorus members each in her (or his) own private world (i.e. lots of twitches and tics and grimaces and bug eyes), their steampunk attire and Sweeney Todd-ready makeup giving them an Addams Family meets Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret look delightfully at odds with their gorgeous harmonizing.

From then on, the ZJU Players stick close to the original Dickens text, from the now iconic “Marley was dead to begin with…” to Tiny Tim’s “God bless us everyone,” the entirety enhanced by a sensational sound design that gives us blowing wind, tolling bells, spectral whispers, and ominous hums to set just the right creepy, kooky mood.

AChristmasCarol@ZJU_Pic3 And speaking of design, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bare blackbox production that looked as sensational as this one does with virtually no “set design” to speak of. Denise Devin’s costumes and Jeri Batzdorff’s specialty costumes range from the carolers’ steampunk blend of Victorian styles and sci-fi fantasy accessories to the Dickens characters’ relatively authentic period garb to the costumes concocted for A Christmas Carol’s assorted ghosts, each and every one a winner. Add to that some stunningly spooky lighting effects and mesmerizing “light-show choreography” by Devin and Vanessa Cate and you’ve got quite an amazing looking show.

All your favorite A Christmas Carol characters are back for the holiday season and played with abundant heart—and respect for the Dickens classic—by an all-around terrific cast.

There wouldn’t be A Christmas Carol without Ebenezer Scrooge (a deliciously grumpy Sebastian Muñoz), Bob Cratchit (Jason Britt), Mrs. Cratchit (Redetha Deason), Martha Cratchit (Gloria Galvan), Tiny Tim (Corey Zicari), Jacob Marley’s Ghost (Zombie Joe), The Ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet to Come (Devin), Scrooge’s nephew Fred (David Wyn Harris, doubling as a jolly Young Ebenezer), Old Fezziwig (Joe in flamboyantly fabulous mode), Belle (Cate), Fan (Annalee Scott epitomizing sweetness and innocence), the Charity Gentlemen (Cate and Gloria Galvan), Ignorance and Want (Cate and Zicari, ever so creepy), and many more (with a trio of zombies added for good measure) and caroler Sandra Saad completing the marvelous ensemble.

AChristmasCarol@ZJU_Pic4 If I had to play favorites, I’d give an Evening’s Best nod to Devin’s wonderfully rich work as an elegant grand dame of a Christmas Past, a bold and brassy redheaded Christmas present, and a faceless, black-shrouded, black-clawed Christmas Yet To Come.

Devin’s inspired direction has characters at times speaking their lines directly to the audience, a technique which might not work in your grandparents’ A Christmas Carol but does in this setting. Perhaps most surprising giving Zombie Joe’s “underground” reputation is just how much real emotion is generated, particularly in Cratchit family scenes filled with warmth, ebullience, and love, emotions that turn to palpable grief at the loss of their beloved Tiny Tim. To put it simply, Zombie Joe’s A Christmas Carol has heart…and the fact that it just zips along is sure to score bonus points with those who’ve only got an hour for their yearly dose of Dickens.

Musical director Scott and her Steam-Punk Chorus deserve highest marks for their caroling, with Scott providing expert guitar accompaniment and underscoring throughout the evening.

AChristmasCarol@ZJU_Pic2 Angelia Weitzman is production assistant, with Joe, Cate, Muñoz, and Josh T. Ryan sharing program credit for directorial and production assistance. Adam Neubauer is “Tech Guru GM.” A Christmas Carol is produced by Zombie Joe.

I wasn’t expecting to be blown away by my upteenth A Christmas Carol, but I was … and I was in the theater at 7:00 and out by 8:00. Yes, I love a long, meaty evening of theater as much as the next man, but there are times when one awesome hour of theatrical magic is just what Dr. Santa ordered.

ZJU Theatre Group, 4850 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
December 1, 2013
Photos: Adam Neubauer

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