Monday, 12 December 2016 22:46

Arts Capsule: Christmas cheer with an important message at the Rep

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John Rensenhouse as Scrooge, James Michael Reed as Bob Cratchit, and Amy Loui as Mrs. Cratchit John Rensenhouse as Scrooge, James Michael Reed as Bob Cratchit, and Amy Loui as Mrs. Cratchit Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

"I have always thought of Christmas time," wrote Charles Dickens in A Christmas Carol, "as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys."

In our current greed-besotted American culture, with its veneration of wealth and power and poisonous hatred for those who possess neither, this may seem like a naïve or even a subversive view. Certainly it was the latter when an itinerant rabbi in the Middle East made it his core teaching two millennia ago. At least now you don't get nailed to a tree for suggesting it.

The Ghost of Christmas Present and Scrooge
Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Still, it's an important message and it remains at the heart of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis's splendid production of David H. Bell's stage adaptation of the Dickens novella. If anything, Bell's adaptation drives home the message of the sheer heartlessness of the "profit above all" mentality by having the young Ebenezer Scrooge go into partnership with Marley and drive his generous former employer Fezziwig into debtors' prison-a twist even Dickens didn't consider. It gilds the dramatic lily a bit but it also drives home how far Scrooge has fallen.

A very strong cast, including many more local actors than is sometimes the case at the Rep, does a fine job bringing the classic Dickens characters to life. Rep regular John Rensenhouse is a wonderfully irascible Scrooge who becomes hilariously giddy in redemption. Joneal Joplin in an imposing Marley, Ben Nordstrom thoroughly engaging as Scrooge's generous nephew Fred, and Jerry Vogel shows versatility as the Ghost of Christmas Present and Fezziwig, as does Susie Wall in the roles of the dotty Mrs. Dilber and the cheerful Mrs. Fezziwig. Amy Loui and James Michael Reed are a winning pair as the Cratchits.

A transformed Scrooge and Fred
Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

There are many other fine performances in this large and diverse cast-far too many to list here. English accents were a bit wobbly among some of the smaller parts at times, but only a real Scrooge would make a big deal about that.

Scenic Designer Robert Mark Morgan, Costume Designer Dorothy Marshall Englis, and Lighting Designer Rob Denton have all conspired to make this a strikingly good-looking and atmospheric production, with some genuinely magical appearances and disappearances for the ghosts. Steve Woolf directs with a sure hand and a good eye for striking stage pictures.

The Rep's production of A Christmas Carol is a holiday treat that will entertain the whole family while delivering an important message. It's stated most forcefully by Marley's ghost when Scrooge tries to placate him was declaring that he was always a good man of business: "Business! Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!" This Christmas, it's a message we very much need to hear.

A Christmas Carol runs through Christmas Eve on the main stage at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University Campus. Visit the Rep's web site for details

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