In Arts & Entertainment Reviews

Jonathan Wainwright brings new and surprising style to Scrooge at The Rep's annual production. (PHOTO: Michael Brosilow)

Brand new "A Christmas Carol" is an exciting adventure for Clements, Rep

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A brand spanking new production of "A Christmas Carol" floated into The Pabst Theater on the wings of a cast of hundreds, an actual snowfall and a Ghost of Christmas Past who melts into the floor right before our very eyes.

This production has been in the works for three years as Mark Clements, the artistic director at The Rep, adapted the Charles Dickens novel for a new age, hoping to get it ready for the 41st edition of the play.

It's safe to say that this version is vastly different from those that have come before it, a move, if you will, into the current decade with a bow to new technologies and a curtsy to the story that is at the heart of this play.

Clements, who also directed, has crafted a play that makes a mockery of the so-called fourth wall that exists between the stage and the audience. From the earliest moments, with Michael Doherty and Angela Iannone acting as our guides, the hundreds of people in the audience are instructed, invited and tantalized to become cast members, responding with a "yes" or a "no" or a "look behind you" at appropriate moments.

Comparing the two versions of this play that have been on The Rep stage most recently may well be unfair to both. Although they tell the same story, they are vastly different productions with vastly different approaches.

The main character in this play is, of course, Ebenezer Scrooge (Jonathan Wainwright) , the miserly figure for whom Christmas and brotherhood toward man draw a famous "Bah, Humbug." Scrooge and his only employee, Bob Cratchit (Reese Madigan) work under the same roof at the same job but their outlooks on life are separated by a chasm as deep as a canyon.

Scrooge is mean, Cratchit is kind. Scrooge has no time or money for the poor, Cratchit has a spot in his own beleaguered heart for all of mankind. Scrooge spits at Christmas, Cratchit finds joy in the sparse fare at his family table.

The most fascinating new development in this adaptation is the course Scrooge takes toward his eventual redemption from his black-hearted ways.

In the old version they money-lender whose very name has become a word in our vocabulary, journeyed with the three ghosts of Christmas Past (Deborah Staples), Present (Chike Johnson) and Future (Darrington Clark) and is so overwhelmed that he has a redemption that is sudden and climatic.

Clements has given Scrooge a lengthy jaunt toward happiness that begins early in the first act. with a visit directed by Staples to the early school days of the miser. He sees hils child self ((Chance Wall) sitting at a school desk, reading Robinson Crusoe and refusing an invitation to spend Christmas with the family of a classmate. Scrooge urges the boy to accept the invitation and it is at that moment we begin to see the heartless veneer begin to crack. The young Scrooge refuses to travel to any Christmas celebration and his reclamation.

In each scene in his life, past, present and future, we see Scrooge continue to recognize the error of his ways and the sorrows he both caused and suffered as his grew into a world-class skinflint.

His turn comes not so much as a sudden sprint but as if he has broken through the tape at the end of a marathon. It's a different expedition but of no less consequence.

Perhaps one of the most difficult things for young audience members to grasp in "Christmas CArol" is the fact that as Scrooge visits his past, present and future and he talks to himself and others, it is all imagination and none of them can hear him.

With a bow to his English heritage, Clements has wisely devised a call and response activity that certainly seems aimed at keeping the children in the audience enraptured with the production. It is a nod to the British form of called "Panto Theatre." It takes its name from "pantomime" and is a style that features grandiose beauty as well as frequent participation by the audience, most often warnings, affirmations and groans of fright. As Scrooge wonders his bedroom and turns hither and yon searching for the latest visiting ghost the squeals of "Behind you, behind you" rang to the rafters of the Pabst.

While the burden on the audience to respond may have become a little shopworn for adults, it certainly worked with children and, therefore, kept the adults intent on both the production and their kids.

This cast of actors, professionals and children, are uniformly spectacular as they capture life surrounded by the wondrous sets of Todd Edward Ivins. Three years in the designing and building, the various sets rotated on a large platform to create bedrooms, parlors, an office, a dining room, an office and the outside of a home. Its an incredible feat of both creative taste and engineering that is not to be missed.

Much to his distinction, Clements uses technologies but is not overwhelmed by them. From the fall of snow onto the audience to the magical melt and disappearance of Staples as her visit comes to an end the effects are both fascinating and in keeping. Clements keeps upper mind the point of any play, "tell the story."

A word must be said about Wainwright who has been a favorite Milwaukee actor for years who is the 12th actor to play Scrooge in Rep productions. He suffers the brutality of recognition of his early, present and future misdeeds but also finds humor in this character. His broad pleas to the audience carry with them a dollop of jester-like visage. His performance, while different, is equal to those of such accomplished actors as James Pickering and Jonathan Smoots.

Before opening night, Clements stood in the lobby, obviously a bundle of nerves.

"It's like having a child and then sending them out into the world," he said.

A well-wisher walked by, shook his hand, and said, "Don't worry. It'll be great."

How right that was.

"A Christmas Carol" runs through Dec. 24 and information on showtimes and tickets is available here.

Production Credits: Director, Mark Clements; Music Director Dan Kazemi; Scenic Designer, Todd Edward Ivins; Costume Designers, Alexander B. Tecoma and Martha Hally; Lighting Designer, Jeff Nellis; Sound Designer Barry G. Funderburg; Original Music Score, John Tanner; Stage Movement Director, Michael Pink; Production Dramaturg, Brent Hazelton; Dialect Coach, Jayne Pink; Casting Directors, JC Clements and Frank Honts; Makeup and Wig Design, Lara Leigh Dalbey; Associate Director, Leda Hoffmann; Stage Manager, Rebecca Lindsey.


There are dozens of little things, small moments, that Clements has drawn that make this production so unique. The Ghost of Christmas Present, for example finds Chike Johnson using a Jamaican accent, such a stark contrast to the high-flown English accents of the rest of the cast. Tiny Tim, afflicted by both a crippled leg and an respirate condition, does not die as in previous productions but lives and utters his famous, "God bless us everyone" without crutch or brace. And the way he utters the phrase is different, with a pause between the words "us" and "everyone." That pause changes the meaning from a plea to a command and it carries a lot of power.

Michael Pink, the acclaimed artistic director of the Milwaukee Ballet, directed the stage movement of this cast. Beside staging dance numbers he had to contend with the a cast of dozens of adult and child actors. It is a demanding task and Pink achieved the kind of structure that made each movement one of reason. There are no isolated steps taken or hands pointed without there being a reason for things.

Several years ago Clements and his wife, actor Kelley Faulkner became parents of a baby girl. It is obvious that fatherhood has had an impact on the creative sensitivities of Clements. This production is full of appeal to young people both in sight and in sound. When you use the phrase "family play," this production fills that bill.

The play opens with Michael Doherty and Angela Iannone on the stage with instructions for the audience some explanation of the character of Scrooge. It's an inventive way to begin the show and full of humor and warmth. Both actors play off each other with the kind of rapport usually reserved for members of the same family. But there humor and loving embrace ensures that in this audience, there are no grinches left.


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