Theater review: Zach Theatre’s “A Christmas Carol”

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Zach Theatre's "A Christmas Carol." Photo by Kirk Tuck.

Last year, Zach Theatre presented a new musical production of  “A Christmas Carol,” conceived of and directed by artistic director Dave Steakley.

Marketed as a contemporary multicultural adaptation, the production back-fired in its attempts to be inclusive,in my opinion and that of my colleague, American-Statesman editorial page editor Tara Trower Doolittle. Instead, Steakley’s “Christmas Carol” presented characters as racial and cultural caricatures, including a poor Latino family as the Cratchits and an African-American maid costumed in Aunt Jemima-like garb serving Scrooge.

Thankfully, Steakley made changes for this year’s production. Gone is Scrooge’s black maid. Instead, Chanel Haynes-Schwartz, who is African-American, plays a shopkeeper.

And while the head of the Cratchit family is once more played by actor Paul Sanchez, the family is cast as one made up of adoptive children of many races. (Gone too, thankfully, are the tokenistic bilingual lines.)

Zach Theatre's "A Christmas Carol." Photo by Kirk Tuck.

Zach Theatre’s “A Christmas Carol.” Photo by Kirk Tuck.

Zach Theatre does what it does best with this “Christmas Carol” — serve up a frothy, musical entertainment spectacle.

(Doolittle offers her opinion of the changes to this year’s production.)

Steakley sticks to his original intent — to imitate Baz Luhrman’s “Moulin Rouge” and its frenzied appropriation of today’s pop hits layered onto a 19th-century period costume piece.

Decked in Susan Branch Towne’s lavish Victorian costumes, these Dickens characters rocked out.

Bits of Bruno Mars, moments of Michael Jackson, a clip from a traditional carol or two — the long list of songs (really just parts of songs) flies by fast and furiously between bits of dialogue, often with  barely a tangential thematic connection.

But then, trying to make any meaningful connection between the flashes of pop lyrics and Dickens’ morality tale seems pointless in such a purposefully glitzy yet polished theatricality.

To be sure Dickens’ Victorian-era story is — and was intentionally created to be — nothing if not treacle, brimming with Christian moralizing and steeped in sentimentality. And true to its source material, Zach’s contemporary version minces neither.

But also true to Zach tradition, Steakley adds plenty of silliness. In just one of the show’s many bump-and-grind-in-a-bustle-skirt moments, the Christmas Eve party at the Fezziwig family home morphs into a strobe-lit dance party. (Christa Oliver-Torres’ choreography for the show nevertheless feels limited.)

Allen Robertson’s musical direction smartly keeps the madcap jukebox in line and he does a particularly fine job with the a capella choral arrangements.

Haynes-Schwartz’s lovely, nimble voice offered star moments when the actress played the Ghost of Christmas Present.

Also delivering stellar vocal performances were Roderick Sanford as the Ghost of Jacob Marley and Kenny Williams as the Ghost of Christmas Past.

As festive froth, this “Christmas Carol” succeeds.

“A Christmas Carol” continues through Dec. 23. $80. www.zachtheatre.org


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