Blah humbug: 'A Broadway Christmas Carol' at MetroStage
By Celia Wren
Wednesday, November 24, 2010
Can a musical have its plum pudding and eat it, too? To judge by "A Broadway Christmas Carol," the unsatisfying Yuletide romp now at MetroStage, the answer is no. Kathy Feininger's holiday goof labors to simultaneously lampoon and celebrate Charles Dickens's classic ghost story, as well as a slew of interpolated show tunes. Tugged in two directions by contradictory impulses - mockery and sentiment - the piece comes across as an annoying mishmash: a Scrooge-spoofing gag here, a heartstring-tugging Dickens quote there, with slivers of famous melodies, yoked to parody lyrics, strewn around like trinkets from a Christmas cracker. Even the beguiling performances of three top-notch actors - Matthew A. Anderson, Peter Boyer and Donna Migliaccio - can't turn this fruitcake recipe into satisfying fare.
It should be noted that "A Broadway Christmas Carol" was a seasonal staple for years at Round House Theatre (where Feininger was an artistic associate). And at one performance of the MetroStage version last weekend, audience members were chortling away. To be fair, too, director Larry Kaye's good-humored extravaganza-on-a-shoestring has its infectiously giddy moments.
As Scrooge, the engaging Boyer has to play it more or less straight - when he's not singing a verse or two of "I'm in the Money" (Feininger's remake of the "42nd Street" number), that is. But Anderson and Migliaccio get to indulge in all kinds of shenanigans as they impersonate specters, Cratchits and other "Carol" figures. After Migliaccio's gleefully absurdist portrait of Marley's Ghost - a female edition, complete with pink gown, blond marcelled hair and Mae West-style voice ("Repent, honey!") - the actress adopts Shirley Temple mannerisms for a cameo as Scrooge's young sister. Then she's camping it up as the Ghost of Christmas Present, in a chartreuse wig and beribboned Christmas-package costume. (Janine Gulisano devised the costumes, and Allison Campbell the set. Steve Baena handled the sound design, including the tongue-in-cheek clattering noises that sometimes resonate backstage when an actor is making a quick change.)
Anderson morphs deftly from a wet-noodle Bob Cratchit, fidgeting with his scarf, to a drolly sullen Ghost of Christmas Past, among other characters. But he's particularly hilarious when the narrative reaches Tiny Tim: With an exasperated expression, the actor sinks to his knees, slumps on a crutch and belts out "(I'm Going to Walk) Tomorrow" - a sendup of the "Annie" standard.
Another amusing dose of irreverence arrives with the "Avenue Q"-style puppets (manned by the actors) who burlesque Want and Ignorance (the Ghost of Christmas Present's spooky sidekicks, in Dickens's original). Even music director Aaron Broderick, at the onstage piano, gets into the mood, wearing a black robe and "Phantom of the Opera" mask for the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come's scenes.
But these splashes of ebullience can't make Feininger's mash-up of caricature and sincerity feel organic. And they certainly can't compensate for the irritatingly bite-size song pastiches - the "Sweet Charity" homage "Big Spender (Spend a Little Dime on the Poor)"; the "Oliver!"-derived "Go and Buy (That Wonderful Turkey)"; etc. - which often feel no longer than a couple of bars. The full-length numbers seem to be hovering somewhere, just out of reach, and the sensation becomes more haunting than any Christmas ghosts.
A Broadway Christmas Carol Created by Kathy Feininger. Directed by Larry Kaye; musical director, Aaron Broderick; choreography, Nancy Harry; lighting design, Brian S. Allard. About 100 minutes.