'Tis the season to make money. Sales may be down in our foundering economy, but arts organizations know how to profit; they recycle holiday items. There's always an audience. Never mind that Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol has little or nothing to do with a birth in Bethlehem and mainly deals with materialism. Despite years of repetition, a stage version featuring performances with depth can still be touching and genuine. In David H. Bell's stage adaptation, Pittsburgh CLO doesn't do that this year.
Seventeen annual productions of this golden-egg goose have been sauced and stuffed, musically enhanced by familiar carols. Director Tim Gregory has served up a respectable enough offering. The singing sounds effortlessly capable, the stage effects seem professional and inventive, and many performers look like they know what they are doing. But Gregory hasn't made this a solid drama about memorable people. He hasn't even bothered to make accents consistent. At least he doesn't have the cast intoning dialogue as if reciting scripture.
The question of what to do with Scrooge always remains: how to make him interesting and genuine, not just a shadow-puppet of what Dickens wrote. That takes a good actor and perceptive direction. Top-billed local celebrity Tom Atkins has been given the role. And does nothing with it. A hollow, awkward shell. And, speaking of puppets, watch him jiggle and jounce in attempts at comedy when Scrooge reforms. Do real humans actually move like that?
Then there's Tim Hartman doing his thing. He's been at this for all of the show's 17 years and yet, instead of playing a character, he turns Mr. Fezziwig into a clown act. He takes over a long party scene with enough shtick for three parties. It's all punched up with anachronistic bits which may please crowds, but which crudely distract from what Dickens tried to say about that kindly, lovable man. Didn't director Gregory care?
Nonetheless, a few actors in the cast manage not to be influenced by such glaring ineptitude. Providing convincing, totally professional portraits especially are Dereck Walton, as Jacob Marley (ghost and pre-dead), and Terry Wickline in the dual roles of Mrs. Fezziwig and saucy cleaning lady, Mrs. Dilber.
Nothing says that this version of A Christmas Carol must be excellent theater, but it has the potential. And respecting an audience's taste and intelligence would be a special gift any time of year.
A Musical Christmas Carol continues through Sun., Dec. 21. Byham Theater, 101 Sixth St., Downtown. 412-456-6666 or www.pittsburghclo.org
- Photo courtesy of Matt Polk.
- Chains we can believe in: Tom Atkins, as Scrooge, and Dereck Walton, as Marley's ghost, in the CLO's A Musical Christmas Carol.