Season's Greetings From Dueling Dickens
Two gifts to Austin audiences as Zach Theatre and Penfold Theatre present their own versions of A Christmas Carol
Reviewed by Bob Abelman, Fri., Dec. 16, 2022
You know the story. Set in mid-19th-century London, Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol is a morality tale about Ebenezer Scrooge's one-night transformation from malevolent miser to charitable cherub. After revisiting the lost opportunities of Christmas past, witnessing the wasted potential of Christmas present, and foreseeing the impending horrors of Christmas future, Scrooge's spirit is rejuvenated, his relationships with his family and the family of his underappreciated employee Bob Cratchit are repaired, and his soul is salvaged. God bless us, everyone.
So popular was Dickens' 1843 novella that London hosted eight stage productions within months. This year, in Austin, two theatre companies roast this old chestnut, doing so through creative lenses that couldn't be more different.
Zach Theatre is offering its eighth year of director Dave Steakley's reenvisioned A Christmas Carol. Promoted as a "musical sleigh ride," your ticket offers passage onto something more akin to the decked-out nightclub car of the Maharajas' Express, where triple-threat talent delivers Dickens with a mixed soundtrack of jazzed-up Christmas standards and a heaping helping of Motown, funk, and pop classics performed in elaborate production numbers.
In Penfold Theatre's 11th production of A Christmas Carol Classic Radiocast, adapted by Nathan Jerkins and directed by Carl Gonzales, the story is presented by a five-member, all-female company in the style of a 1940s radio play with live foley sound effects and prerecorded background music. It's a staged reading, really, where Dickens' words are delivered as originally intended: verbatim and without dance breaks.
Christmas isn't a competitive sport, except for retailers and divorced parents of young children, but let's see how these two productions of the classic measure up against each other on the things that really count.
Ebenezer Scrooge becoming "as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew," is pretty much the point of A Christmas Carol. Marc Pouhé's Scrooge in the Zach production is greed personified. He's a snarling, short-tempered, sadistic soul whose utterance of his catchphrase is laden with pathos, and his transformation is brimming with exuberant joy. The very talented Amber Quick serves up a merely unpleasant Scrooge in the Penfold production, the product of what could be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato. Her transformation is a short journey. Point: Zach.
What the Dickens?
The musical My Fair Lady was based on George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, which was inspired by the writings of ancient Greek poet Ovid about a sculptor who falls madly in love with one of his ivory statues, and his passion fuels the desire to bring her to life. Amidst the musical theatre trappings of the Broadway production, much of the original poetry got lost in translation. The same is the case with Zach's A Christmas Carol, where the elaborate and highly entertaining storytelling far outweighs and often shrouds the story. In the Penfold production, Dickens is front and center. Point: Penfold.
A Social Conscience:
"Mankind was my business," says Marley early in A Christmas Carol, in an effort to show Scrooge – and by extension us – the error of his ways. The 1840s was a decade of extreme poverty and Dickens' writing was, if nothing else, sensitive to this misery. This is most in evidence when the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge a vision of two emaciated children, bleakly named Ignorance and Want, who represent the failings of a society that seeks to be progressive but doesn't meet the most basic needs of its citizens. This failing resonates still, yet this scene, and the social awareness it encourages, was absent from the Penfold's staging while the Zach serves it up amidst a dry ice fog and hauntingly dramatic lighting. Point: Zach.
A Currier & Ives Feeling:
Productions of A Christmas Carol, like store window holiday displays that resemble Currier & Ives lithographs, kick-start our holiday spirit. The Zach production achieves this by way of sensory overload. The Penfold production achieves this by requiring us to listen carefully to Dickens' descriptions of the festive streets of London and activate our imaginations. For those attracted to shiny things, set and match Zach. For those won over by the vivid pictures in their head, point Penfold for the tie.
In need of a tie-breaker? Both shows have extended runs.
Zach Theatre's A Christmas CarolThe Topfer, 209 S. Lamar, 512/476-0541
Through Dec. 31
Running time: 2 hrs., 20 mins.
Penfold Theatre's A Christmas Carol Classic RadiocastOld Settlers Hall, 3300 E. Palm Valley, Round Rock, 512/850-4849
Through Dec. 23
Running time: 90 mins.