Alan Menken & Lynn Ahrens’s gorgeous songs are the best of quite a few reasons to catch Actors Repertory Theatre Of Simi’s holiday production of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol despite the disservice its multitalented hometown cast is done by some sour notes emanating from the orchestra pit.
Anyone familiar with Menken’s Disney oeuvre (Aladdin, Beauty And The Beast, Enchanted, Hercules, The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, The Little Mermaid, Newsies, Pocahontas, and most recently, Tangled) not to mention his Broadway hits (Little Shop Of Horrors, Sister Act The Musical, and many of the aforementioned titles) can imagine how tuneful his A Christmas Carol songs will be even without having heard them during the musical’s 1994-2003 holiday runs at Madison Square Garden or in its 2004 TV adaptation starring Kelsey Grammer as Scrooge.
Add to Menken’s music the deft lyrics of Stephen Flaherty’s most frequent collaborator (Once On This Island, Ragtime, Seussical, and many more) and you’ve got more than a dozen songs you’ll want to hear again and again, among them the exquisite “A Place Called Home,” not to mention uptempo numbers (“Link By Link,” “Fezziwig’s Annual Christmas Ball,” and “Abundance & Charity” among them) sure to be dancing around in your head long after curtain calls.
Mike Ockrent and Ahrens’ book opts wisely to stick close to the Dickens original (though why the writers renamed Belle Emily and omitted her key denunciation of the “golden idol” that ended up displacing Scrooge’s childhood love is anyone’s guess).
Under Jan Glasband and Becky Castells’ able direction, Damian Gravino’s Scrooge anchors the production in a performance that captures literature’s most ultimately beloved miser in all his crotchety meanness—with a good deal of humor thrown in for holiday measure.
Supporting Gravino is a cast so huge, they merit extra marks simply for fitting onto the relatively compact Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center stage, in addition to the applause they deserve for executing Castells’ energetic choreography, expressly tailored for their various talents.
Alyssa Deboisblanc (Fan, Tre Cratchit, Angel), Heather Baez (Rich Woman, Woman #2, Creditor), Katherine Bottoms (Emily), Cynthia Caldwell (Ghost Of Christmas Past), Kyle Cooknick (Fred), dance captain Tori Cusack (Wraith), Kevin Ellis (Ghost Of Christmas Past, Sandwichboard Man), Nicholas Ferguson (Marley’s Ghost), Tyler Fraser (Tiny Tim, Scrooge at age 12), Autumn Jessel (Grace Smythe), Ally Kaplan, Kate Landro (Blind Old Hag, Mrs. Fezziwig), Genevieve Levin (Mrs. Cratchit, Scrooge’s Mother), Rachel Levin, Austin Robert Miller (Young Ebenezer), Vinny Mohr (Scrooge at 8), Dawn Notagiacomo (Featured Dancer), Paul Panico (Old Joe, Poulterer), Grace Phenicie (Martha Cratchit), Brian Pletcher (Beadle, Mr. Fezziwig, Judge), Spencer Pletcher (Gravedigger), Jaclyn Plotkin (Sally Anderson), Jared Price (Young Marley), Gianberto Ridino (Mother Goose Leaflet Boy, Gravedigger), Camille Schwarz (Granny Pickwick, Bread Vendor), Julie Snyder (Mrs. Mops, Granny Chuzzlewit), and Timothy Velarde (Mr. Smythe) bring their talents and an abundance of enthusiasm to the entire endeavor, and under P. Matthew Park’s musical direction, their harmonies are ear-pleasing indeed.
The same cannot unfortunately be said for an orchestra whose best efforts—and it’s a sure bet that each and every member is giving his or her all—do justice neither to the cast’s vocals nor to the score’s symphonic arrangements. (I can only imagine how much better this Christmas Carol would sound with professionally recorded backup tracks.)
On a far more positive note, Castells’ savvy choreography turns musical numbers like the taptastic “Abundance & Charity,” the creepy-crawly “Link By Link” (with its cast of dancing corpses and some “Thriller” moves thrown in as a bonus), and the infectiously joyous full-cast Act One closer “Fezziwig’s Annual Christmas Ball” into crowd-pleasers each and every one.
Kamenow’s lighting is mostly first-rate, and though he might have gone even creepier in “Link By Link,” he scores high marks for keeping projections vivid even during brightly lit scenes.
Caldwell’s colorful period costumes are all-around winners, and scenic designer Seth Kamenow makes effective use of David Daniels’ and his own projections to set various scenes (though we could be made better aware of the Cratchits’ poverty in costuming, lighting, and set).
Kevin Kahm’s sound design amplifies voices without a glitch. Brenda Miller does terrific work as prop mistress, assisted by Ben Deschaine’s, Kamenow’s, and her own specialty props.
Megan Tisler is stage manager. Others receiving program credit include producer Glasband, lightboard operator Brenda Goldstein, spot operators Luther Cockrill and Carrie Dean, and crew members Brandin Mitchell and Tara Suffolk.
Ultimately, it wouldn’t be a year-end holiday season without at least one excursion into Charles Dickens land, and if only to hear Menken and Ahrens’ songs performed live on stage, Actors Repertory Theatre Of Simi’s A Christmas Carol is worth seeing.
Actors Repertory Theatre Of Simi, Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center, 3050 Los Angeles Avenue, Simi Valley.
November 29, 2014