Zach Theatre's A Christmas Carol

Dave Steakley's musical version abounds in great voices, but it may drown out Dickens with songs

Michael Valentine (c) as Fred and the ensemble of Zach Theatre’s A Christmas Carol (Photo by Kirk Tuck)

There are two types of people in this world: those who prefer sugar plum fairies leaping about at holiday times and those who are squarely Team Scrooge. Having grown up with the annual black-and-white version on TV and later, the delightful Muppets rendition starring a curmudgeonly Michael Caine, I've always loved A Christmas Carol best. The Dickens novel is all but perfect, too. Let's call it the original Nightmare Before Christmas, where men are haunted by visions of their lesser selves but reminded that, with the right choices, the future is as malleable as fresh snow.

What could possibly be missing?

Well, if you're Zach Theatre: music. Lots and lots of music. Pop music. Country music. Gospel and soul music. Dance music. And don't forget good old-fashioned holiday fare. Emphasis on the "carol" in the Dickens' classic.

Luckily, Zach's original musical version is permeated with strong voices, who are more than capable of pulling it off. There's the raspy powerhouse Mary Bridget Davies (Ghost of Christmas Present/Mrs. Gilchrist), bringing us to church like the love child of Aretha Franklin and the unsinkable Molly Brown. There's the ethereal altar boy tenor of Paul Sanchez (Bob Cratchit) and his operatic "O Holy Night." There's Roderick Sanford as Marley (and other characters too numerous to name) and his booming baritone, filling the four corners of the stage; Kenny Williams (Ghost of Christmas Past) and his infectious, Mama Ru sashay; and, my favorite voice of the night, Michael Valentine's clear, beautiful sonority as Fred, the fine nephew even Scrooge can't fuss with.

A bevy of glorious voices in an energetic cast, having a ball up there, and believe me, they earn it. If this Christmas Carol has a hole in its stocking, it's that there are simply too many songs and the poetic precision of Dickens' words are lost in wall-to-wall musical numbers. Think of the delicacy of the story's first line, "Marley was dead to begin with." Or Scrooge's rejection of his partner's ghost as mere indigestion: "There's more of gravy than the grave to you." Now, stir those up and put them in the pudding with Madonna's "Holiday," Kool and the Gang's "Celebration," Jessie J's "Price Tag." Even a recent drop from Lizzo made it in – in a scene already overstuffed like the holiday bird.

The burden of selection lies squarely on the adapter: director and Zach Producing Artistic Guru Dave Steakley. Sometimes Mr. Steakley, less is more. My Christmas wish is that instead of four songs to emphasize every masterfully conceived plot point, we had but one that illuminated what Dickens has already done so well, that Zach had given us a tale rich with intrigue and darkness and revelation and light without even once overdoing it.

Bah humbug!

Not wanting to be a Scrooge, I took my mother along with me. I heard her exclaim as I drove out of sight, "Don't give that show a bad review!" She loved every last minute of it, right down to the Act I close, an Avicii-style rave with smoke, flashing lights, and glow sticks. Some prefer balletic mice and some like their Dickens intoned to them by a warm fire.

God bless us, every one.

A Christmas Carol

Zach Topfer Theatre, 202 S. Lamar, 512/476-0541
Through Dec. 29
Running time: 2 hr., 35 min.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Zach Theatre
Review: Zach Theatre’s The Inheritance, Part 1
Review: Zach Theatre's The Inheritance, Part 1
Epic in length and ambition, this portrait of gay life in the 21st century is stunning

Bob Abelman, Aug. 26, 2022

Outdoor Concert Kicks Off the Zach Theatre Season
Outdoor Concert Kicks Off the Zach Theatre Season
Music, moonlight, and Mickey Mouse thrills audience and performers alike

Dina Barrish, March 4, 2022

More Arts Reviews
Art Review: “Masters: Calder and Dalí”
Art Review: “Masters: Calder and Dalí”
Rare gems get the chance to shine at Ao5

Cat McCarrey, July 19, 2024

Art Review: “Encounters in the Garden”
Art Review: “Encounters in the Garden”
Laredo-based artist renders open interaction with the unfamiliar

Lina Fisher, July 12, 2024

More by Laura Jones
Paradox Players' <i>The Mountaintop</i>
Paradox Players' The Mountaintop
In this powerful production of Katori Hall's drama, MLK wrestles with his life's meaning – and maybe an angel

Feb. 28, 2020

Mary Moody Northen Theatre's <i>The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time</i>
Mary Moody Northen Theatre's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
This moving, transformative show gives its autistic hero a deep and engaging humanity

Feb. 21, 2020


Zach Theatre, Dave Steakley, Mary Bridget Davies, Roderick Sanford, Kenny Williams, Paul Sanchez, Michael Valentine

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle