There are two people writing this review. First there is Dustin Britt — the guy who has gone to Theatre in the Park’s musical-comedy version of A Christmas Carol, with his family, every December for the last 27 years. This Dustin values dearly the contribution that writer-actor-director Ira David Wood III’s annual production has made to the Triangle community.
The family tradition of seeing this show is important to hundreds of people. “It’s not Christmas ’til we’ve seen A Christmas Carol” is oft-chimed at the Thanksgiving table. This Dustin is excited when the lights dim as Diane Cashwell Petteway strikes up the band for the overture, and he cries as Scrooge redeems himself with Tiny Tim.
This TIP musical is funny, exciting, and moving, just as it should be. This Dustin has had dozens of friends in the cast over the years, and is about as close to the production as one can be without working on it.
The other Dustin K. Britt is a theater critic. This is not the same person. In 2016, a shift in perspective — even temporarily — was necessary. And it was not easy.
Folks, we need to talk about A Christmas Carol.
For those who may not know, A Christmas Carol premiered at Theatre in the Park’s modestly sized performance space in 1974. It opened amid the cultural chaos that was 1974: President Nixon had just resigned, Saturday Night Live was several months from its big premiere, “Bennie and the Jets” was the big single, and Mel Brooks was coming into his own with Blazing Saddles. Art was about politics, extravagance, and satirical absurdity.
It was from this storm of excess and satire that A Christmas Carol was born: Dickensian catharsis meets late-night variety show, with a powerhouse entertainer at the center. The show has become Theatre in the Park’s big fundraiser, helping keep the place up and running smoothly for the other 11 months of the year.
About a decade ago, Mark Pirolo designed entirely new sets for the production, which had been reusing the beautiful, but aging, backdrops from years prior. Combined with some new costumes, enhanced by designer LeGrande Smith, some new life was breathed into the show.
A few changes to content have been made as well. Older gags (Scrooge’s singing dog; the beggar woman kicked into the orchestra pit; a cannon) were phased out as socio-political and pop cultural humor became more and more a part of nearly every scene. One of the show’s musical highlights, “The Cup of Human Kindness,” performed by the Ghost of Christmas Present, was put in a few years back, while flashy Vegas-inspired number “You Can Do It” has been in and out of the show for years.
The cast continues to be top-notch. Lauren Paige Rainey is the best Niece we’ve ever seen, her bouncy bubbly nature matched perfectly with Chris Maxwell’s grounded, very traditional Nephew Fred. David Moore continues to move audiences as Bob Cratchit, with Heather Shinpaugh’s charming Mrs. Cratchit nearby.
Audience favorites David Henderson and John Shearer come back year after year as Jacob Marley and Christmas Present, respectively. Their energy and charm cannot be overstated. This year’s “Once Upon a Dream” ballet (reliving Scrooge’s teen romance with the beautiful Laura) was one of the show’s finest, danced with great elegance by Nick Tew and Dyson Beck, thanks to expert choreography by Chasta Hamilton Calhoun.
The Ghost of Christmas Future has always been shaky ground for the show. Oftentimes, an attempt is made to “spice things up” with a new characterization, but the penultimate scene during which Christmas Future appears works best when the straightforward interpretation allows the show to move forward. We all know what’s coming.
Chris Milner’s camp performance as the Ghost of Christmas Future this year was very funny, but the audience just did not know what to make of him. He was likely channeling his character from this fall’s Southern Baptist Sissies; but if you did not know that, you were certainly lost in the dark, and the entire scene was awkward.
A couple of things need to shift. First, we are now in a political climate that is highly contentious. People are looking for escapism. Frequent political jabs and asides are not keeping folks engaged, and this audience was notably uncomfortable or confused by several of the references, though they got tickled by a good poke at Hillary Clinton.
Ending the curtain call with a beautiful patriotic song, highlighting the need for solidarity and peace, was an appropriate choice. But how can one do that while coming back to the contentious election again and again within the play itself?
The first act is already of great length, and does little to communicate plot. Rather it has become a somewhat indulgent series of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In-era one-liners, interspersed with a truly amazing score. Cracking up on stage is, of course, verboten in the professional theater. To not only do that, but to do it repeatedly, and to actually work it into the script of a show, plays the audience for fools — forgetting about those who have seen this “goof-up” 41 times already.
Secondly, it is time. I’m saddened to say it. David Wood has played this role with terrific energy and heart for 42 years. If one looks at this year’s show alone, his performance as the world’s most famous humbug is pitch-perfect: he is Scrooge, body and soul. But, for those who have witnessed decades of the show, we know that Wood’s previous physical energy has begun to wane, although he continues to have expert comic timing and carries emotional moments with great care.
Young Mr. Wood (a.k.a. Ira David Wood IV) is playing Scrooge at Saturday matinees this time around, and is showing the physical vitality demonstrated by his accomplished father in earlier years. That vitality is needed to keep up with a show that continues to grow and as much of the cast gets younger and younger. Ira Wood was raised on this show and is a perfect Scrooge — the only logical choice to carry the torch into the decades ahead.
That all being said, this reviewer is still an ardent fan of A Christmas Carol, and will continue to be there year after year, happily overlooking any of the production’s flaws in favor of reveling in the magic and spirit of a great local tradition.
The show is in PG territory for some occasionally less-than-wholesome humor.
SECOND OPINION: Dec. 7th Raleigh, NC Time Warner Cable News interview with adapter, director, and star Ira David Wood III, conducted by Caroline Blair: http://www.twcnews.com/nc/triangle-sandhills/in-depth-interview/2016/12/7/in-depth–a-christmas-carol-.html; Dec. 3rd Raleigh, NC News & Observer preview by Mary Cornatzer: http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/arts-culture/article118420428.html; and Nov. 29th Raleigh, NC WRAL.com interview with adapter, director, and star Ira David Wood III, conducted by Bill Leslie: http://www.wral.com/entertainment/video/16288106/. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the Dec. 10th Triangle Review review by Nicole Noel, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2016/12/ira-david-wood-iiis-christmas-carol-is-the-gift-you-unwrap-first/.
Theatre in the Park presents A CHRISTMAS CAROL, starring Ira David Wood III as Scrooge, at 7 p.m. Dec. 15 and 16, 2 and 7 p.m. Dec. 17, and 2 p.m. Dec. 18 at the Durham Performing Arts Center, 123 Vivian St., Durham, North Carolina 27701, in the American Tobacco Historic District.
TIP Box Office: 919-831-6058.
Ticketmaster: 800-745-3000 or http://www.ticketmaster.com/venueartist/115558/1003849.
GROUP RATES (20+ tickets): 919/281-0587, Groups@DPACnc.com, or http://www.dpacnc.com/events-tickets/group-services.
SHOW: http://theatreinthepark.com/calendar/event/2, https://www.facebook.com/events/895600543903953/, http://www.dukeenergycenterraleigh.com/event/a-christmas-carol-6513, and https://www.facebook.com/events/1794369120797400/.
A Christmas Carol (1843 novel): http://charlesdickenspage.com/carol.html (David Perdue’s Charles Dickens Page), http://web.archive.org/web/20080825120326/http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/DicChri.html (text courtesy University of Virginia Library), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Christmas_Carol (Wikipedia).
Charles Dickens (English novelist, 1812-70): http://www.dickens2012.org/ (Dickens 2012), http://www.dickensfellowship.org/ (The Dickens Fellowship), http://charlesdickenspage.com/index.html (David Perdue’s Charles Dickens Page), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Dickens (Wikipedia).
Ira David Wood III (adapter, director, and star): http://theatreinthepark.com/about/whos-who (Theatre in the Park bio), https://www.facebook.com/iradavidwood (Facebook page), https://twitter.com/idwiii (Twitter page), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ira_David_Wood_III (Wikipedia).
Dustin K. Britt is a Triangle native, holds a master’s degree in special education from East Carolina University, and teaches locally. He can be spotted all over the Triangle area either painting scenery or chewing o n it. He has received local theater award nominations for doing both. He is a devoted cinephile and author of Hold the Popcorn, a movie blog on Facebook. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment He can also be found via his official Facebook page and on Twitter @dkbritt85.