"The Carols" - a Musical Comedy Based in Tradition But Also Unabashedly Iconoclastic

Elizabeth Boyke, Moira Quigley, Mandie Russak -Credit: Heather Mull

Say the word carol this time of year and a bell goes off (hopefully an angel also gets its wings, if you get my drift). But don't let the title of the musical now playing at the Carnegie Stage in Carnegie throw you. The songs you'll hear in "The Carols" are fresh and new, not old chestnuts that date back centuries.

Jennifer Childs (book and lyrics) and Monica Stephenson (music) put together a lively Christmas frolic that alludes to (and is set in ) the past, but ventures into the land of artistic license with a mish-mash of elements all designed to make you laugh with intoxicating humor that sometimes also borders on hokum.

Set in the VFW Hall in the backwater town of Picatinny, New Jersey, the year is 1944 and World War Two is finally nearing its end. A triad of spirited sisters in their early 20s are determined to carry on the town's annual tradition of mounting a production of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." The problem is how to arrange such a feat when all the young males are away overseas fighting a war. Who will play Scrooge, Bob Cratchit, and Marley's Ghost when all that are left to fill those roles are on the distaff side of things?

With the energy and brio of a stable of young fillies chomping at the bit, Lily, Rose and Silvia Carol (now you get the title of the play?) are steadfast in their notion that the play must go on. They're held somewhat in rein by Miss Betty (Beth Johnstone Bush), a grumpy and hard-boiled matron who rules the hall as best she can and almost with an air of  resignation.

Adrienne Fischer's colorful set is both patriotic with red white and blue bunting and seasonal with flourishes of Christmas touches. It feels large, spacious, warm and homey with a dash of institutional ambiance that says, yes, this is a VFW Hall. What spaces aren't filled with Fischer's creations are more than ample to allow for some energetic, though fundamental choreography by Mandie Russak.

Elizabeth Boyke, Moira Quigley, Mandie Russak -Credit: Heather Mull
But back to the sisters. Besides handling the choreographic elements, Russak plays the role of Rose, perhaps the most bubbleheaded of the three.. Her most endearing idiosyncrasy is her refusal to pronounce silent letters in words like ghost which she mouths as gee-hosts. She's also on the lookout for a beau (which she mistakenly pronounces as Bee-oow). Fortunately, she has the looks and goods that should insure a salubrious match sooner if not later.

As Silvia, Elizabeth Boyke is socially and politically aware and a fan of FDR and especially his wife Eleanor. She and Rose have aspirations of a life outside the small town they were born in. Lily (Moira Quigley) is more settled as the youngest sister with intentions to stay put in Picatinny, but what life might be like without her two sisters has her troubled and distressed. Quigley is the most somber of the sisters and serves as the narrator of the story, but somber is an inappropriate word to use in her case because all the girls exude unabashed optimism and panache.

Confounded as to how to put on their planned production, they (and the show) get a shot in the arm with the arrival of Melvin Shaatz, a Borscht Belt comedian passing through town on his way from the Catskills to Florida. As Shaatz, Marc Moritz explodes onto the scene, his repertoire of Henny Youngman jokes ready at a minute's notice, his Yiddishisms adding injections of jocular ethnic humor into the narrative.

What is a musical without accompaniment? Music director Douglas Levine settles in behind an upright piano at the rear of the stage, tickles the keyboard with a solid touch and remains there inconspicuously for the duration of the show. He does have a speaking role at the end so watch and listen for his illuminating quip that's short, sweet and ticklishly funny.

Needless to say, the annual staging of Dickens' seasonal tale does go on, but with an almost all female cast (judging by what I said above about Johnstone Bush, you can guess who gets the role of Scrooge). The lengthy, densely-written skit has so many surprisingly Surreal elements I began to think that if Salvador Dali decided to become a playwright, this was the kind of material he'd pen.

This foray into a parodied version of Dickens' opus starts off with a calypso routine thematically as far removed from its original London setting as imaginable and even includes a revised rendition of Abbott and Costello's infamous "Who's on First" routine,

Of the ten or so songs included in the production, the actresses showcase some admirable vocal prowess, and their close harmonies shine like the star atop a Christmas tree.

This is the second mounting of "The Carols" by Carnegie Stage and two of the actresses - Quigley and Russak, were in the original. Sadly, Leon Zionts, who recently passed away, played Shaatz, a rendition that will probably remain the theatrical landmark of the role in my mind. The show's producers have dedicated the current production to his memory.

Erika Cuenca and Robyne Parrish direct the show with an emphasis on the comic elements and the music and bring a light hearted glow to the proceedings that end with a flourish that's just short of joy. 

"The Carols," a production of off the Wall Productions, is at the Carnegie Stage, 25 W. Main Street in Carnegie, through December 14. For tickets phone 724-873-3576 or https://www.insideoffthewall.com/the-carols.