At Arena & Synetic, New Twists on the Same Old Dickens

The classic holiday theater fare is updated to a USO dance setting in Arena Stage's
The classic holiday theater fare is updated to a USO dance setting in Arena Stage's "Christmas Carol 1941" with Gia Mora singing as Kay. (By Scott Suchman -- Arena Stage)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Enough already with the humbug.

Two new productions of "A Christmas Carol" opened in Washington over the weekend, bringing the total number of local retellings of the Dickens chestnut to 77.

Okay, not 77. It just sort of feels like that many.

Arena Stage and Synetic Theater are horning in this season on the "Christmas Carol" franchise that Ford's Theatre has traditionally claimed; the Ford's show starts up next week at the Lansburgh Theatre on Seventh Street NW, because its historic space on 10th is being renovated. Meantime, Arena is weighing in with the world premiere of "Christmas Carol 1941," an adaptation with songs and set in wartime Washington, while Synetic is entering the holiday fray with a dancing take on the story, filled with the undulating ghosts of Christmas past, present and future.

Given the multiplicity of ways companies keep coming up with to put Jacob Marley in chains, one would think that "A Christmas Carol" represents some kind of artistic magnet. Or maybe -- and I'm just guessing here -- the appeal is in its non-adventurousness: a type of programming simply meant to be sung in the Yuletide shopping key of ker-ching/ker-ching/ker-ching.

I confess that my calluses have hardened in overexposure to the story of Ebenezer Scrooge. Perhaps there are fans who never tire of seeing it on a stage. That, anyway, is what Arena and Synetic seem to be banking on, as both theaters devote considerable energy to distinct new twists on a seasonal vehicle of shopworn inspiration.

The hook for the uneven "Christmas Carol 1941" is the parsimony of a Washington accountant -- here called Elijah Strube -- who in the early days of World War II sees the ripening of black-market possibility in the food shortages to come. Playwright James Magruder, an accomplished translator of the works of Marivaux and Moliere, follows the Dickensian formula faithfully, with Strube browbeating Bob Cratchit substitute Henry Schroen and being visited on the Fichandler Stage not by ghosts but, more oddly, by avenging statues from around Washington, such as Winged Victory from State Place and 17th streets and Freedom from atop the Capitol. (The Ghost of Christmas Future is embodied by an actress playing the statue Grief.)

James Gale's Strube snarls and growls in such unpleasant fashion that you can't work up much enthusiasm for his redemption; Scrooge's catchphrase -- "Bah, humbug!" -- is replaced by Strube's coarser "Bullcrap!" The performance is of a piece with the rest of director Molly Smith's production, which never quite comes together in a satisfying way.

Part of the difficulty is the awkward manner in which four original songs by composer Henry Krieger ("Dreamgirls") and lyricist Susan Birkenhead ("Jelly's Last Jam") are crowbarred into the show. One, "Heroes of the Homefront," a bit of '40s pastiche, is introduced into a USO scene with the singer declaring, "That's my cue!" (Parker Esse's choreography is far too tentative, even if he's working for the most part with actors rather than dancers.)

The most resonant aspect of "Christmas Carol 1941" is in the depiction of the Schroens, who are apparently based on Magruder's own Washington relatives. In place of Tiny Tim, Magruder develops the character of Butch Schroen (Clinton Brandhagen), a lad eager to enlist, despite the desperate objections of Mom (Nancy Robinette). In her pleas, you can hear the current-day protests of the likes of Cindy Sheehan, although how exactly Strube's intervention would prevent Butch's signing-up is not made particularly clear.

The nuclear family also consists of the father, Lawrence Redmond's Henry and his brother, Albert (Christopher Bloch), a veteran psychologically damaged by World War I. Mollie Clement is fetching as the Schroens' daughter. Redmond and Bloch are lovely actors -- right, in fact, for any occasion -- and they try their darnedest to give this "Christmas Carol" soul. Theirs is a noble struggle against the forces of inconsistency.

Synetic's joining the bandwagon occurs with more of a hop, but the result is merely serviceable. Its 75-minute "Christmas Carol," performed at the Rosslyn Spectrum, is executed with the company's trademark reliance on Scotch tape and muscle.

The tale, with Irakli Kavsadze's brooding Scrooge at the center, is related clearly and efficiently. What the production lacks is the zing factor -- the compelling body-crafted stage pictures that director Paata Tsikurishvili and his choreographer-wife Irina routinely coax out of their young actors.

A hardworking cast of eight dons robes and sways and swirls a lot, under a moody canopy of bare light bulbs. You get less a sense, though, of the company's winning style than of the umpteenth reprocessing of the same old story.

Christmas Carol 1941, by James Magruder. Songs by Henry Krieger and Susan Birkenhead. Directed by Molly Smith. Set, William Schmuck; costumes, Vicki R. Davis; lighting, John Munro; sound, Garth Hemphill; projections, Adam Larsen; music director, George Fulginiti-Shakar. With Tim Getman, Gia Mora, Connan Morrissey, Clay Steakley, Bayla Whitten, C.J. Harrison-Davies. About two hours. Through Dec. 30 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Call 202-488-3300 or visit http://www.arenastage.org.

A Christmas Carol, adapted by Nathan Weinberger. Directed by Dan Istrate and Paata Tsikurishvili. Choreography, Irina Tsikurishvili; lighting, Colin K. Bills; sets and costumes, Anastasia Ryurikov Simes; music, Konstantine Lortkipanidze; vocal coach, Elizabeth van den Berg. With Linden Tailor, Niki Jacobsen, Regina Aquino, Miles Butler, Vato Tsikurishvili, Irina Kavsadze. Through Dec. 23 at Rosslyn Spectrum, 1611 N. Kent St., Arlington. Call 703-824-8060 or visit http://www.synetictheater.org.


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