Monday, December 1, 2014

Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol (review)

Spoilers Ahoy!

Here we go again. I can almost hear the tiny internal groan at the news of yet another production of THE Christmas story, the one rendered into cliche by repetition, reinvention, parodies, tributes, reinterpretations, etc. What after all can Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre Group bring to the table that a whole slew of previous productions, including musicals and muppets, have not? Well, a different cast for one thing. Any dramatization depends on that, and experiencing a good performance frankly is its own reward. Don't you think? But if you're looking for a new twist, the current production by ZJU of Dickens' classic also has a distinct 'steampunk' flavor. Does that count?

Me, I'd go a bit further. A Christmas Carol in all its incarnations doesn't remain popular due to some weird media conspiracy. No, when done right (with Mickey Mouse, Doctor Who or Alister Simm) it remains a tale that works. Dickens created a ghost story, one in which the past actively reaches out to the present and grabs it by the scruff of the neck to give a good shake. But more, it tells a story that is at the very heart of what we most hope Christmas to be--a time when remember to be kind, that we need not suffer loneliness, that love really does exist. With Ebeneezer Scrooge (a wrenching performance by Sebastian Munoz) we see a very special fantasy played out. The second chance. Who of us does not at some point or other long for that?

Photo Credit: ZJU
But again, it just won't work without good performances (nearly always requiring a director with enthusiasm, vision and a keen eye, Denise Devin in this case also playing the various Ghosts of Christmas). This show has that.

Now, ZJU mounted this production last year and does pretty much the same frenzied, fascinating, roller coaster as before. The plot, startlingly, is all there. Frankly, it usually is not. One of my favorite moments has always been when the Ghost of Christmas Present reveals two hideous gaunt children--their names are Want and Ignorance. We see this. Likewise we not only get to see Scrooge's face as he watches the love of his life (Lara Lihiya-- who as violinist in the show's Steampunk chorus, lets loose her inner goblin) walk away from his youthful self, but his expression upon seeing her now--seeing the family that could have been his.

All this works, not simply because it zooms without letting us get bored by a story we already know (really, the whole performance clocks in at about sixty minutes) but hitting the emotional moments, including bits of silence and waiting. Bob Cratchit (Jason Britt) and his wife (Redetha Deason) especially do wonders with quiet joy and even more quiet, but searing grief. They give among the top performances in the show, but then they have to--if they don't love Tiny Tim (Courtney Drumm) for example, we the audience will not.

The whole ensemble does a fine job, not really in exploring the dark recesses of the Human Condition, but in telling this story. This specific, hope-laden tale intended to move and give comfort, reminding us of the light in the dark and the warmth amid the chill. Kudos to everyone, such as Gloria Galvan, Patrick Albanesius, Sarah Kessler, Kelly Rhone, Kevin Pollard Jr., and A.J. Sclafani, each of whom played a variety of roles and managed to make it clear to us that fact. No small feat, incidentally. This story can be so very cloying, so by-the-numbers. But this production, with this cast and crew, summon up the magic that made Dickens novella re-read to this day, over 175 years since it first appeared in print.

A Christmas Carol runs on Saturdays at 8:30pm and Sundays at 7pm, through December 28, 2014Tickets are $15. For Reservations call: 818-202-4120, or go to . Zombie Joes is at 4850 Lankershim Blvd. North Hollywood CA 91601 (north of Camarillo, south of the NoHo sign, across the street from KFC).

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