Saturday, Dec. 10, 2011

A Gift From Christmas Past

The Rep’s continued A CHRISTMAS CAROL continues to pay lasting tribute to Joseph Hanreddy’s time as Artistic Director

By Russ Bickerstaff
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I narrowly managed to avoid NOT going to A Christmas Carol this year. The Milwaukee Rep’s long-running stage adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic continues another strong season with a strong cast and the Marjorie Bradley Kellogg/Martha Hally design work that has served it so well for so many years.

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In an era where things are changing for the Rep thanks to a new Artistic Director, The Milwaukee Rep’s A Christmas Carol is kind of a tribute to former Artistic Director Joseph Hanreddy. That much of the cast of Hanreddy’s Christmas Carol comes ot the stage more or less intact in this production makes it feel like theatrical comfort food . . . not just for people who have become so familiar with Dickens’ classic, but for those of us who love the old Rep. Hanreddy returns to direct the show the adaptation that he co-wrote with Edward Morgan.

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James Pickering returns in the role he has become synonymous with over the years. He’s a high-gravity Scrooge. His gruff aggression in the role makes the transformation at the end that much more dramatic than other actors in the role. Lee Ernst plays Bob Cratchit—a role that had been played quite often in the recent past by Torrey Hanson.

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It’s kind of weird seeing a show like this with a lot of people who don’t regularly go to the theatre. As a result, people have a tendency to talk more during this one than most other shows . . . I overheard the guy sitting behind me in a very audible voice saying, “he’s too big to play Bob Cratchit.” Okay, so yes . . . so Ernst just got finished playing Vince Lombardi . . . he put on some weight to play the legendary coach. Hasn’t quite taken off the weight yet so yes—this year’s Bob Cratchit looks a bit more well-fed than he has in years past.

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Things progress and things change from year to year, but I’ve seen Hanreddy and Morgan’s A Christmas Carol a whole bunch of times over the years and things have a tendency to blur together for me, but like anything, you pikc-up on different things every time you go to a show . . . this year the thing that really hit me was Deborah Staples in the role of Christmas Past. I’d seen it played very dreamlike in the past by Jonathan Smoots. So often, Chirstmas Past has sort of a warm austerity about it. It’s there to establish what’s going to be going on, but on a spectrum it would rest somewhere between the boisterous joviality of Christmas Present and the silent creepiness of Christmas Future. Deborah Staples seems to be playing the role this year with a bit more joviality. The physical embodiment of Christmases past, she seems absolutely charmed by them. She possesses the same kind of omniscience as the other two, but that doesn’t mean that she has to stand there like a figurine. And she doesn’t. Her Chrismats past seem to be genuinely enjoying her trip through previous holidays with Scrooge. Her performance and so much of the rest of this production is a gift from the past destined to change over time as the Milwaukee Rep continues to evolve in interesting new ways. There will come a time when James Pickering and Lee Ernst and Deborah Staples and Jonthan Smoots and Laura Gordon and Jonathan Gillard Daily and Mark Corkins and Drew Brhel won’t be in the cast anymore, but while they’re still there, it’s nice to know the past is still running.  

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The Milwaukee Rep’s 2011 run of A Christmas Carol runs through December 24th at the historic Pabst Theater. For ticket reservations, call 414-224-9490. 

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