Out & About: Banish the humbug with PMT's 'glorious' 'Christmas Carol'

Out & About: Banish the humbug with PMT's 'glorious' 'Christmas Carol'

Story by J. Michael Call , Standard-Examiner staff - Dec 5 2012 - 10:47am
Gerry McIntyre (Ghost of Christmas Present) and Ashley Gardner Carlson, Nikol Wolf, Jessica Blair and Jessica Azenberg star in Pioneer Theatre Company's "A Christmas Carol" (Photo by Alexander Weisman)
A scene from Pioneer Theatre Company's "A Christmas Carol." (Photo by Alexander Weisman)

'A Christmas Carol: The Musical'

various dates and times, Nov. 30-Dec. 15.
Pioneer Memorial Theatre
300 S. 1400 East
SLC
$38-$64.
www.pioneertheatre.org.

Sometimes, the minute the lights go up on a show, you know you're in for a spectacular ride.

Such is the case with Pioneer Theatre Company's production of the enchanting holiday treat "A Christmas Carol," which opened Friday at Pioneer Memorial Theatre in Salt Lake City.

It's the first time the Dickens tale has been presented on PMT's stage. It's also the first production directed by Karen Azenberg, the company's new artistic director. The multitalented Azenberg also choreographed the show, and her experience on Broadway is obvious -- the production rivals anything audiences will see on the Great White Way.

The cast is extraordinary, with not a weak performance in the Dickensian bunch. The experience is an even more magical treat given the fact that the strong ensemble of more than 30 performers is accompanied by a live 15-person orchestra in the pit. The joyful, powerful sound created by that combination is not to be missed.

Of course, it doesn't hurt that the show is based on one of Charles Dickens' most beloved works, or that the score was written by composer Alan Menken -- famous for writing Disney's "Beauty and the Beast," "Newsies" and "The Little Mermaid," to name just a few of his accomplishments.

But even with strong material, a show can falter if the cast is not up to the task. Fortunately, there are no weak links in PTC's production, including some critical performances by some actors with Top of Utah ties.

New York City actor Jamie Jackson as Ebenezer Scrooge gives a nuanced, funny and ultimately joyful portrayal of a character who can become stale and predicable in less-capable hands. Jackson is a master of the stink eye and is appropriately cranky in "Nothing to Do With Me," which includes some nice foreshadowing in a bit involving the actors representing the three ghosts.

Ogden actress and Weber State University graduate Ginger Bess is unrecognizable as the "Blind Old Hag," until you hear the redheaded songstress' distinctive, beautiful voice emerge from beneath the hag's rags. WSU grad and Bess' real-life husband Daniel Simons, who is understudying Bob Cratchit, also adeptly helps move the story along as Mr. Smythe -- one of the targets of Scrooge's wrath.

Scrooge and company definitely get the story off to a strong start, but then it really steps up its game with the delightful "Link by Link." That's when the chain-rattling Marley, played by WSU graduate Justin Ivie, shows up to give Scrooge a piece of his unworldly mind. Ivie is funny and scary -- in a "Ghostbusters" sort of way -- as he chastises a trembling Scrooge. The costuming was also superb as Marley drops bits of chain here and there and cowers Scrooge into submission with Lynn Ahren's clever lyrics.

And just when you think things can't get better, the number suddenly transforms itself into a huge production number with other chain-clad cast members bursting into the theater and joining the duo onstage in an energetic bit of choreography reminiscent of Michael Jackson's "Thriller." "Link by Link" is easily the most fun I've seen a bunch of spirits have onstage since Tevye's dream sequence in "Fiddler on the Roof."

The winsome Ephie Aardema as the Ghost of Christmas Past is also a breath of fresh air and isn't afraid to give Scrooge a smackdown when he needs one. With an ideal blend of loveliness and sassiness, Aardema was well-suited for the sentimental "The Lights of Long Ago" as the audience is reminded of why and how Scrooge's early life unfolded.

Gerry McIntyre as the Ghost of Christmas Present was also in his natural element, surrounded by his entourage of toe-tapping showgirls in rollicking "Abundance and Charity." The only problem with the spirited number was that it didn't last long enough and McIntyre was gone from the stage too soon.

It was the best of times for audiences at Friday's opening of the production, and I'm sure it was the worst of times at one moment when the enormous Ghost of Christmas Future puppet refused to cooperate and move its arms. Instead, the puppet just hung around while a seemingly nonplussed Jackson went on with the story in "Dancing on Your Grave."

A family member of mine who saw the show Saturday night told me the Ghost was back to its bony, finger-pointing ways the following evening. Honestly though, it really didn't matter at that point whether the puppet moved or not as the company had so completely charmed the audience.

The final moments of the show with Tiny Tim's famous sign-out and Menken's rapturous score are glorious.

If you're looking for a show to chase away the humbug, this is the one to do it.

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