Monday, December 2, 2013

Zombie Joe's A Christmas Carol (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

December ushers in many things, including lots of different versions of the perennial fave A Christmas Carol. So many versions one might rightly wonder how else might one do the story? We've seen musical versions, all female versions, US modern versions, Great Depression versions, various styles of animated (including Mr. Magoo), the Muppets, a one man stage play (with Sir Patrick Stewart no less), even Doctor Who did a version!

Now Zombie Joe takes a shot, and finds yet another way to act out Dickens' most beloved story. It should surprise no one this production never once forgets this remains a ghost story!

Perhaps the average theater-goer might suspect ZJU would transmogrify this classic into something fascinating and grotesque but not really the tale people love. Well, no. At least not this time. What we experience instead fully meshes with the spirit of Christmas, but through a Halloween lens. In fact the whole show begins with a "Steampunk Chorus" singing Christmas Carols--but with a spooky edge. The effect often proves
Photo credit: Adam Neubauer
hilarious! Not least for the sense of character each performer brings--not simple nice people who barely know life contains shadows. Rather this chorus might, just might have been composed of family and friends of the Addams Family!

Once they've set the mood, the story commences--and at what seems like a breakneck pace! Almost everyone plays multiple roles, all save Sebastian Munoz as that most famous miser of all time, Ebeneezer Scrooge. Which makes perfect sense. This remains his story after all. In fact, the whole production rests squarely on his performance. If we don't believe in Scrooge, then at best we're distracted by the other characters and their antics. The heart of the tale lies in his redemption, in our seeing him as a human being who was not always the nasty old man we meet, and who might yet find again the power of compassion and joy. Because here lies the secret of A Christmas Carol's power--we all are Ebeneezer Scrooge. Or so we fear in the deepest part of our hearts. None of us retain the hopeful innocence of childhood. We all feel ourselves warped by life's pains and disappointments. No one
Photo credit: Adam Neubauer
reaching adulthood doesn't feel regret for choices made, paths taken, a word or action we'd take back if only we could!

Munoz succeeds bringing that very truth to life on stage. No small feat since he only rarely leaves it! The trap with Scrooge is to play the miser as a nothing more than a caricature. Easy to see why--the meaty scenes all come later as the worst aspects of the man begin to shed away. One of the hallmarks of the best Scrooges is that one feels the emotional truth of him from the start. Not someone playing at being a miserable old man, but who actually is exactly that. Munoz (who did such a marvelous job in The Raven earlier this year) gives us both.

A word here as well about pace. This production proceeds at a breakneck speed. It fairly zooms along. Yet it retains a natural rhythm, including moments of pause and reflection. Indeed, those moments become more powerful simply because they stand out in sharp relief from the rest. Amidst the roller coaster ride of young Ebeneezer coming home from school, Mr. Fezziwig's party and the like, the simple pause that lets Scrooge react as he sees his younger self make a titantic, stupid error--one that ripped all chance of happiness from his life for decades--stands out very much indeed. Like
Photo credit: Adam Neubauer
a lighthouse in darkest night.

Let us not forget the rest of the cast as well, who do a fine job in a virtual blitzkrieg series of performances. A few stand out most--top of the list being Zombie Joe himself! Never having seen him perform before now, let me note he almost steals the show as the Ghost of Marley, as Mr. Fezziwig and as the venal Undertaker (treat in and of itself that left me wanting more). Likewise Vanessa Cate did a lovely job in her roles, including the relatively straightforward one of Belle, the woman Scrooge loved and let slip away. She created a lot of depth with that tiny part. Annalee Scott played guitar for the Steampunk Chorus as well as playing several other parts, changing a lot with each role (including a waiter that stuck in my mind for some reason, as well as Scrooge's beloved sister Elizabeth). Jason Britt made a fine Bob Cratchit yet managed to keep the seemingly similar roles he played also distinct (kudos for that!). Redetha Deason was his Mrs. Cratchit, with Corey Zicari as a strangely attractive Tiny Tim (not her fault--she's a very pretty young woman, and helped add that tiny touch of weirdness one expects at Zombie Joe's!)

Denise Devin follows up her Witch of Endor in Whore's Bath with all three Ghosts of Christmas in this one. Honestly this seems such a good idea I'm a tad startled never having seen it done before! Given the speed at which this show proceeds, it also serves as a nice anchor point for the audience to not loose track of things along the way. Just as having David Wyn Harris play not only young Scrooge but his nephew Fred serves the same function (and helps on a visceral level explain his intense dislike of the young man).

Is this a perfect production without a flaw or hiccup? No. Hardly any theatrical performance I've ever seen qualifies for that! Frankly, I'd call that an unrealistic standard. One can spot a stumbled line here, a beat missing or a (very few) ones unneeded. But this show, it flows. It works. We understand the story and emotionally respond. Not to mention we laugh as well as cry, just a bit. More than once the audience (at last this member) spend long periods fascinated. Kudos to the entire cast and crew for that achievement--include Gloria Galvan and Sandra Saad.

A Christmas Carol shows at 8:30pm on Saturdays and 7pm on Sundays until December 22, 2013 at Zombie Joe's Underground Theater 4850 Lankershim, North Hollywood 91601 (just south of the NoHo sign, across the street from KFC) 818-202-4120

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