Christmas Cheer with a Dash of Halloween - Pittsburgh CLO Stages Holiday Tradition

Mark Jacoby as Scrooge and Emmett Kent as Tiny Tim in "A Musical Christmas Carol" Credit: Matt Polk

Along with the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's annual three week run of "The Nutcracker," the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera's yearly holiday treat, "A Musical Christmas Carol" has become a Pittsburgh entertainment tradition. Now in its 28th year, the latest mounting of the Dickens-rooted story opened December 6 at the Byham Theater.

While waiting for the opening note, I gazed at D. Martyn Bookwalter's cluttered set stage rear that reminded me that it might make a good New Year's resolution to start going through my things and getting rid of some of the excess stuff that's built up over the past year. Throughout the show, Bookwalter's talent comes through in leaps and bounds with some appropriate props that come on and off stage like precision clockwork.

The Byham stage is relatively small compared to that of, say, the Benedum. What with the mishmash of antique objects that filled the back of the stage, I was surprised at the large cast of singers, dressed in gorgeous Victorian era outfits designed by Mariann Verhayen, managed to assemble, then sing one of the most beautiful renditions of "Silent Night" ever.

Original director and choreographer, David Bell adapted Dickens' 1843 tale of he miserly Londoner famous for his need to utter "Bah Humbug" every time someone mention the word Christmas.and turned it into a cheery, holiday gem. 

Following Dicken's lead, he also included the infamous ghosts that eventually spur Scrooge's transformation from mean penny pincher to converted philanthropist.

Ghosts at Christmas always seemed a bit much ever since I first encountered Dickens' Christmas-themed chestnut as a mere boy. The incongruity of it all stayed with me ever since, adding a touch of Halloween to my end-of-year holiday experiences.

Jacob Marley is Scrooge's first supernatural encounter. The spirit is all wrapped in chains, forged link by link during a parsimonious life equal to Scrooge'.s. Daniel Krell gets the role, playing mentor to the young Scrooge, then making him his partner and teaching him the tricks of his usurious trade.

The CLO cast veteran actor Mark Jacoby in the role as the crotchety old skinflint who makes life miserable for everyone he meets but especially his menial and meek employee, Bob Cratchit, played by Jeffrey Howell. Believe it or not, Howell is now in his 25th year as the amiable, family-loving father who bears Scrooge's tantrums for the sake of his loved ones. 

As Scrooge, Jacoby shows a slow mellowing into his transformational epiphany brought on by encounters with the Ghosts of Christmas Past (Lara Heyhurst, stunning in a radiant outfit), Christmas Present (Tim Hartman) and Christmas Yet To Come (Ben Cherington). 

The ghosts show Scrooge past Christmases at the Fezziwig's where holiday joy was as thick as the gravy made from a Christmas goose. He relives his happier times with his sister, Fan (Alex Manalo), his romance with Belle (Erika Strasburg) and his entrapment by the young Marley (Daniel Krell). seducing him with avarice and setting him on his own road to greed.

Actors to look out for include the imposing Tim Hartman, whose stentorian voice makes you sit up and take notice in two roles -Christmas Present and the jolly Mr. Fezziwig, and Allison Cahill in rib tickling, bravura performances as Mrs. Dilber and Mrs. Fezziwig.

In Christmas Present, he sees how his nephew, Fred, making merry at home on Christmas, jeers him behind his back for his austere approach to life after his request to join him for holiday dinner is rudely rebuffed. He's then taken to the Cratchit household, watching Bob's children gleefully await Christmas day while Mrs. Cratchit, (Lisa Ann Goldsmith) agonizes over the low key celebration the family can afford on her husband's meager wages. 

The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come makes the greatest impact on Scrooge. He is shook after seeing how his belongings are snatched up by neighbors while his dead body is still warm, how the townsfolk mock him in death and how lonely and uncared for his tombstone will become when he's gone..

How the CLO manages to find, then cast such talented and endearing youngsters in the role of Tiny Tim remains a seasonal mystery. In the current production, Emmett Kent plays with the audience heartstrings, getting in the musical's last words with his joy filled "God Bless Us Everyone."

You can't get much more of an emotional turnaround than the segue from the musical's dark and ghostly scenes to the finale, all light and joy and happiness as Scrooge jubilantly does his best to atone for his previous misdeeds with genuine largess.

With musical accompaniment under the direction of McCrae Hardy, director and choreographer, Scott Evans heads a production that's had plenty of time to mature over the years. Under his aegis, the show runs as smoothly as a marble on a linoleum floor, unfolds like a children's pop-up book, excites with some special effects and left me with in an upbeat holiday mood. Catch a show and you'll see why it's become a regional holiday favorite.

"A Musical Christmas Carol" is at the Byham Theater in Downtown Pittsburgh through December 22. For tickets, phone 412-456-6666 or online by clicking HERE

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