It was nearly half a century ago when actress Helen Hayes gave the world her lovely book, “A Gift of Joy.” Now we have another such gift in downtown Houston. It was a festive atmosphere even before the curtain went up on the opening night of Masquerade Theatre’s new production of Alan Menken (music) and Lynn Ahrens’ (lyrics) musical version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. With its book by Mike Ockrent & Lynn Ahrens, Masquerade founder, Phillip Duggins, cheerfully directs this Houston premiere of the musical treat that pleased New Yorkers for many seasons in the Big Apple. Even before the resounding chimes signaled conductor, Richard Spitz, to guide his fine orchestra through the thrilling Overture, there was merriment aplenty on two side balconies overlooking the stage, where private parties included full bar service for the elect. Moments later the stage would fill with the joyfully caroling ensemble sound of the full company, all beautifully costumed (Designer, Libby Evans) in the styles of 19th century London, and singing “Hear the Bells,” with joyful gusto. We could have stopped right there with the spirit of Christmas well established, but of course there was much more.
I imagine there is no need to extensively outline the well-known story of miserly old Ebenezer Scrooge, who, with the help of spooky visits from three spirits (William Martin as the Ghost of Christmas Present, Libby Evans as the Ghost of Christmas Past, and Kristina Sullivan as the Ghost of Christmas Future) eventually learns the values of human kindness and generosity that had eluded him for most of his life. In the central role of Scrooge, Luke Wrobel gives a delightful performance that is great fun to watch as he skillfully captures the transitions from the mean old miser to the kindly, caring, and infectiously jolly Scrooge that emerges.
In their handsome top hats, the Three Charity Men (Aicardo Rivera, Adam Delka, and John Gremillion) form a great singing trio in their vain attempt to get the penny-pinching old fool to contribute to helping the poor. Then we meet the ever-cheerful Bob Cratchit, as performed by Luther Chakurian, who brings a warm musical embrace to his song as Cratchit sings sweetly to crippled son, Tiny Tim (Ana Canino). And speaking of singing sweetly, wait until you hear the wonderful sound of Canino’s voice singing in reply. All the action plays out superbly on the creative set and scenic designs of Amanda McBee, which feature a virtual triptych of scenes that play out above the action on the main stage, and feature lovely paintings of everything from town to toys.
Wrobel gives a solid performance of “Nothing to Do With Me,” with the full company joining in its fiercely lashing conclusion. As for the ghosts, they arrive mysteriously from a fiery tunnel full of smoke, and when Scrooge’s old business partner, Marley arrives in chains (another role for Mr. Delka), he and fellow ghosts do a haunting, “Link By Link” ballet (Choreography: Laura Gray, Michelle Macicek & William Martin). During some of the numbers I was puzzled as to why so much backstage movement of actors and technical staff was easily viewed in the wings from my side of the orchestra.
The show lifts to an even higher plane of energy with the fun-filled arrival of old Fezziwig (Evan Tessier), and Mrs. Fezziwig (Rebekah Dahl) who really have the Christmas spirit and freely share it with others during “Fezziwig’s Annual Christmas Ball”, amid the gorgeous party costumes and gay dances that include polkas, waltzes, and minuets full of grace. The exhausting scene explodes with acrobatic tricks, dance variety, merriment, and fun. At the same time we begin to see the softer side of Scrooge. As the Ghost of Christmas Past, Miss Evans sings the narrative well while displaying the Young Ebenezer (another role for Mr. Rivera). With a beautiful voice and looking lovely in a glorious sea-blue satin gown, Catherine Taylor plays his young sweetheart, Emily, as they sweetly duet for “A Place Called Home.” Scrooge the elder joins them poignantly as he calls up memories of his squandered youth.
With hilarious wreath headdress and impish smile, Mr. Martin, as the Ghost of Christmas Present, was every inch a Christmas “ham” in starting off Act II. (He also did a high-energy and well-choreographed turn as the Sandwichboard Man” in Act I.) He joins the Christmas Elves (crisply uniformed in bright red satin), and the increasingly merry Scrooge, for the lighthearted and zany song and dance of “Abundance and Charity.” Canino delivers a darling solo for Tiny Tim’s “Christmas Together,” that evolves into another ensemble classic from the cast as the warmth of love from Bob Cratchit and his family begins to melt the heart of old Scrooge: “Even this child who has nothing has so much to share.”
Miss Sullivan’s Ghost of Christmas Future ably guides Scrooge through the ghostly cemetery scene for a “Dancing on Your Grave,” that finally allows him to see the light. Awakening as a new man, he is giddy with delight, and his glee is infectious as at last he makes up with everyone. He even tells a neighborhood errand boy to “K-K-K-Keep the change,” from a coin, as Wrobel cleverly stutters for this old miser who is trying to learn new ways of generosity. Redemption is clearly in the air as the snow falls on the joyous musical splendor of the “Final Montage” finale. To sum it all up, let me borrow the title of another Christmas classic: “Joy to the World”.
Masquerade’s “A Christmas Carol” continues in the Zilkha Hall of Houston’s Hobby Center, with 8 p.m. performances Friday Nov. 27th and Saturday Nov. 28th and a 2 p.m. matinee this Sunday Nov. 29th. For tickets and information, call 713-861-7045, or visit the website at www.MasqueradeTheatre.com.