One of the delights of this time of year is the reappearance of an oft-forgotten form of theater: the pageant.
For most of us, our pageant experiences are limited to a nativity play, with children dressed in homemade costumes re-enacting the biblical story before a choir of squirmy angels. Once upon a time, though, communities all over the country presented pageants to commemorate history, heroes and local culture.
There's something about the holiday season, though—even in a hectic, high-tech age—that makes pageants sprout up all over. To see one, try catching A Christmas Carol at the Comedy Playhouse.
This is, of course, the classic Christmas ghost story by Charles Dickens, told in a faithful adaptation by local favorite James Gooden. Gooden's version, seen for years at the now-gone Top Hat Theatre Club, is reinvigorated under Bruce Bieszki's direction. In keeping with every Christmas pageant you've ever seen, the enthusiastic cast sings traditional carols and original songs, and even does some dancing.
As everyone knows, A Christmas Carol is the tale of heartless miser Ebenezer Scrooge (played by Gooden), who at last embraces the Christmas spirit after being visited by three ghosts who force him to re-examine his past, present and future.
A Christmas Carol is so full of familiar figures—from the jolly Mr. Fezziwig to sweet Tiny Tim—that this show almost feels like a family reunion. Gooden's uses portions of Dickens' original 1843 text, so even the language is familiar.
You can practically sing along to some spoken passages, whether it's Scrooge's early declaration that "every idiot who goes about with 'Merry Christmas' on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart," or his "merry as a schoolboy" delight after his transformation.
Gooden's adaptation incorporates not just dialogue, but also narration from the novel. Characters frequently address the audience using Dickens' words to describe their actions.
This production doesn't worry about exploring the inner process of Scrooge's metamorphosis. Instead, the external events that prompt it merely pass before us in series of lively, pageant-like tableaux—the apparition of Scrooge's dead business partner wrapped in chains; the pitiful yet joyous Christmas dinner at the Cratchit home; Scrooge's discovery of his own grave in the churchyard.
Traditional English carols, such as "I Saw Three Ships" and "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," are sung throughout. The original songs—written by James and Elizabeth Gooden, Helen Gregory and Joel Kreimeyer-Kelly—have the craft and charm of professionally written musical-theater tunes. They effectively let us inside of the characters' heads.
Bieszki has gotten enthusiastic performances out of his ensemble, and he keeps the show moving at an energetic pace, using his theater's admittedly limited space and technical resources to good effect.
The show has a pageant-size cast of 13 community performers, more than you typically see in local productions. Of course, the most-polished actor of the group is James Gooden. He has clearly internalized his material over the years, and he knows how to deliver each of Scrooge's lines for maximum effect. He has a gift for comedy and is equally capable of mining laughs from dialogue or a twist of his face.
His Ebenezer seems to take perverse pleasure in being shockingly uncharitable, and his characterization mixes bits of W.C. Fields with The Penguin, Batman's nemesis. When it comes to singing, he sticks primarily to a Rex Harrison-esque speak-singing style.
Casts have been alternating over the long month of shows. On the night I attended, Scrooge's jolly nephew Fred was played by Alex Greengaard. His open, boyish face and his brightly colored costume—especially his enormous, holly-ringed top hat—give him the daffy look of a cartoon character. He seems a little out of place in Dickensian London, but he provides a nice contrast to Scrooge. Singing the new song "Come to Christmas Dinner," Greengaard's voice is light and untrained, but his enthusiastic performance carries him through.
The most polished singing voice of the evening belongs to Claire Cox, who, as the Ghost of Christmas Past, sings the beautiful "Light One Candle." As Mrs. Cratchit, she also joins in on "Christmas Tide."
As Scrooge's put-upon clerk, Bob Cratchit, Colin Roberts captures the hope and helplessness of a man who has been poorly treated by life. Alan Gordon delivers a remarkable physical performance as the ghost of Jacob Marley. Young Andrew Gooden is a pleasure to watch as the earnest school-age Scrooge and as one of the kids in the Cratchit clan.
Audiences don't attend a pageant expecting to see Arizona Theatre Company's level of professionalism, or the polish of a fine production of The Nutcracker. They won't get those things here, but every member of the cast delivers a dedicated and wholehearted performance.
People come to a pageant like this one to celebrate together with their fellow men and women, onstage and off—which sounds like a good way to describe Christmas cheer.