Bah humbug, indeed.
Nobody would blame you for grumbling that movie, television, stage and radio adaptations of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" have been done to death over the years -- like a holiday goose cooked in the oven too long. By a conservative estimate, there have been at least 173 productions or parodies of the venerable tale, and if you're not interested in checking out the latest version, which airs nationally on many PBS stations beginning December 14, it's certainly understandable. In this case, however, you'd be wrong.
"A Christmas Carol: The Concert" has the distinction of being the only known adaptation of Dickens' 1843 novella written as a dramatic concert, with singers backed by a full symphony orchestra. But that's not what makes the show so special. Its electrifying performances -- driven by a powerhouse cast, a rock/pop/gospel rhythm section and members of the Elmhurst College Concert Choir and the Chicago Children's Choir -- add up to an instant holiday classic. Rising at times to near operatic levels, the 90-minute show is an engaging, cleverly staged production that the entire family can enjoy.
Unlike so much tiresome holiday fare, "A Christmas Carol" offers a new take on a timeless story, blending the sweep of symphonic performance with dramatic musical theatre and the visual delights of dazzling TV. You get all three in this re-telling of Dickens' story about a miserable miser who finds true religion -- and suffers the fright of his life -- when three ghosts visit him on Christmas Eve. Ebenezer Scrooge's transformation into a generous man may seem all too familiar. But it hasn't looked this fresh in a long time.
"A Christmas Carol" boasts a writing team led by composer Bob Christianson, whose score has echoes of "Phantom of the Opera" and "Les Miserables," with along strands of Sondheim, folk, gospel and blues. The Emmy-nominated musician has written for NPR, Broadway and TV; he's a respected studio musician who has also conducted Broadway shows including "Godspell" and "Gilda Radner-Live from New York."
His collaborator, Alisa Hauser, crafted an original book and lyrics that are simultaneously faithful to Dicken's beloved narrative but also break new ground. An alum of the prestigious BMI/Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop in New York, she's penned lyrics for the Disney Channel's "Johnny and The Sprites" and performed on Broadway in "Thoroughly Modern Mille" and the original cast of "Beauty and the Beast."
With little or no props and a spare setting, Christianson and Hauser have managed to evoke the grime and darkness of 19th century London, as well as the hope and compassion in Dickens' tale. But the chief credit for that goes to four exceptional cast members. As Scrooge, Michael Lindner brings a commanding presence and rich baritone to a role that never once descends into caricature. A well-known name in Chicago's musical theatre world ("Shrek: The Musical," "Sunday in the Park with George" and "Ragtime") his harrowing on-stage transformation is compelling and moving.
Special mention must be made of Scott Coulter's multiple performances as Bob Cratchit, Scrooge's nephew, Tiny Tim and other characters. A talented New York musical theatre performer ("Floyd Collins" and "Forever Plaid") as well as a recording artist and award-winning cabaret singer, Coulter's distinctive tenor packs an emotional wallop in the show, whether he's singing about the joys of Christmas, grieving over a son's death or illuminating a child's life at boarding school. His dramatic range -- and an empathy that cuts to the core -- make for an unforgettable performance.
Kyle Scatliffe ("Les Miserables" and "Scottsboro Boys") playing Scrooge's dead partner, Jacob Marley, and the three ghosts, inhabits his roles with a penetrating intensity and a booming, Broadway-ready voice. The narrator, E. Faye Butler ("Oklahoma," "The Wiz" and "Aint Misbehavin'") tells the venerable holiday story with wit, intelligence and a contagious enthusiasm.
Still not convinced? Consider that the producers added a fifth character to the mix -- the packed audience that watched the show at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie, Illinois. As the action unfolds, cameras zero in on wide-eyed reactions from young and old alike, bringing real-time emotions into the mix. All of which is to say that if you catch yourself tearing up at any point in the show, you're certainly not alone.
If there are any quibbles, it's that even a sumptuous television broadcast can't duplicate the magic of actually witnessing a live performance, so here's hoping the show can put together a national tour. And if you can't wait for that, a recording of the production will soon be available on iTunes.
Dickens' novella turns 170 next week, and historians believe it was instrumental in rekindling a sense that Christmas should be celebrated as a festive holiday. "A Christmas Carol: The Concert" keeps that tradition alive, so raise your glass to a timeless tale reborn--and God Bless Us Everyone.
"A Christmas Carol: The Concert," directed by David Kersnar, was produced by HMS Media, and is being presented by WTTW National Productions in Chicago. It airs on PBS beginning December 14.