"A Christmas Carol" Tradition Continues

 Right: Jonathan Wainwright and Jonathan Smoots. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Right: Jonathan Wainwright and Jonathan Smoots. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

When I was 14 (back in the mid-1980s) my parents decided we should do something extra special to celebrate Christmas. Though Milwaukee was almost two hours and a million miles away from our rural, small-town lives, they purchased tickets for the four of us to see A Christmas Carol at the Rep. Other than a couple of musicals at the Fireside Dinner Theater in Fort Atkinson, this was my first taste of professional theater and the very first time I saw this hallowed holiday production live.

The memories of the experience are both warm and fleeting. I remember the gorgeous costumes of the carolers, seeing kids my age acting on stage (!), and a very frightened Scrooge cowering before the impossibly large, black clad Ghost of Christmas Future, its skeletal arm pointing accusingly toward Ebeneezer's grim fate, if he did not change his ways. I also remember the long trip home in the car, long past my bedtime, feeling as if I had experienced something truly magical. 

So when I took my seat in the Pabst Theater earlier this month to see the Milwaukee Rep's 2017 version of the Dickens classic, I had vague memories, and child-like hopes for magic. In that respect, I was not disappointed. 

Surrounded by families on extra special Christmas outings, complete with gaggles of little girls wearing velvet, hair ribbons and shiny dress shoes, I settled in for an evening that could impress children of the digital age, proving that there is absolutely nothing as powerful as live theater. For them, there were plenty of carolers in fancy costumes, emerging onstage as the set rotated and morphed from scene to scene. There were children -- their own age -- making up the Cratchit family, including an adorable Tiny Tim (Ashley Bock), who captured the audience's heart with the line "God bless us every one," and a musical solo that could pierce the hardest of hearts.

And there were ghosts, both terrifying and ethereal, complete with lights embedded in their robes, and crowns made of fire. As the cursed ghost of Jacob Marley, Jonathan Smoots strode down the aisle of the Pabst and onto the stage, an evil zombie with glowing chains and wild, bedeviled hair. After warning his old business partner of the fantastic ride he was about to embark on, Marley was pulled down to the netherworld by grasping goblins in a cloud of smoke. On the other end of the specter spectrum, Deborah Staples' Ghost of Christmas Past talked with Scrooge and the audience, looking every inch the glowing aunt of a heroine from Disney's Frozen

As scenes unfolded, the set of 19th century London row houses took on a dangerous, red glow, as if demons lurked in every dreary window. Entrances and exits were grand, parties at the Fezziwigs' Cloth Factory and nephew Fred's home were full of food, drink, dancing, singing and merriment that was impossibly gay. And Scrooge's future, if not amended, became more frightening than any haunted house full of ghouls. 

As the old miser Scrooge, Jonathan Wainwright embodied a shriveled wretch who was wasting away from lack of love and joy. Pale and wiry, with a gaunt face and thin hair, this skinflint took on the role of an Everyman, doing battle with a legion of Halloween horrors, and finally led back to kindness and light by benevolent spirits and a cheering audience. Instead of choosing to change for the better, he was scared--almost to death--into doing the right thing. As were we.

Ah, but when he did. . . there was magic. It snowed (real snow!) in the auditorium, flakes that I watched melt in my hand. We all rose and sang Christmas carols in one voice. The goblins were banished and for a moment there was unity, community, and joy to the world; the stage was as beautiful as the snow globe that decorated the programs for A Christmas Carol. 

And as I made the long drive back home in the dark, I realized that I had never experienced anything quite like that before, outside of Disneyland. The special effects easily outshone the story, keeping us all amazed, every minute. I thought about how generations of young people would look back on that show with awe. And I wondered which parts they would remember.