Reviewed by Cindy Pierre
The Vortex Theater's production of A Christmas Carol: the New Musical is neither a run-of-the-mill version of Charles Dicken's ghost classic nor is it a conventional theatrical or musical experience. And depending on your sobriety, that may not be such a good thing. Transforming the miser Ebenezer Scrooge (Jason Trachtenburg, of musical outfit the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players) into a corporate philanthropist in a country headed for environmental ruin, this version by Kris Thor and Joel Bravo is but a silhouette of the original concept with more questionable choices than triumphs.
Set during a December heat wave in present day North Carolina, the conditions already challenge the frigid temperatures of the original, allowing the audience to be more sympathetic towards a Scrooge that doesn't withhold heat. He has his own vices, however, and the upcoming spirits will tell him so. In this update with a vintage feel, Scrooge returns to the "grave" of the Carolina ash tree that he planted in memory of his mother and also returns to memories of a lost, but not forgotten love. If you expect the ghost of Jacob Marley (Joe Ornstein), his deceased business partner, to show up and set off the chain of events, expect again. Here, Jacob Marley is represented as a hardworking, stand-up man (not contemptuous) and his mentor, who remains insecure about his wife Belle's (Tracey Weller, in a much larger role than the original) former relationship with Scrooge. He does die, but his demise is pregnant with far more responsibility for Scrooge than he ever had in the Dickens story. In a haphazard fashion, Scrooge encounters a female ghost of Christmas Past, the Archivist (kooky Deborah Knox), a tag team to represent Christmas Present (an exciting and mischievous Julie LaMendola and Dan Gower), and keeping with the theme of a grim spectacle, a not-silent-enough Beekeeper (Libby King) representation of Christmas future. More character upheavals can be commented on, but the gist is, everything and everyone is different.
The major problems with this production stem from the portrayal of Scrooge and the manner in which the characters in his life are reimagined. This version deviates so much from the original that Scrooge's redemption is hardly realized. Trachtenburg's Scrooge is a fun-loving, almost comical character, and not the hard-nosed curmudgeon that needs to be taught some lessons. And although the ditties that he sings are entertaining, they antagonize the audience's need to dislike him before he is given some sympathy. Here, Scrooge seems more like a hapless participant in greed and social irresponsibility than a ruthless initiator. Although the backdrop of environmental disease is a nice touch, the foray into romance with Belle isn't. Some of the concepts such as the inclusion of home videos to visit his past and the beglittered half of Christmas Present hissing "ba humbug" are rich with sentimentality and humor, but some others such as an adult Wayne and Ignacious Bridge (Want and Ignorance, played by Michael Martin and Isaac Woofter, respectively) are tedious and don't make any sense. After all, this Scrooge's ignorance is not that deep and his desires are not that selfish. The dialogue is contemporary and will resonate with hipsters, but one needs to be in a particularly "lofty" zone to enjoy it or take it seriously.
A Christmas Carol: the new musical is more than a fresh spin on the classic. It is an entirely different experience with an ending that doesn't suggest that Scrooge learns what he's supposed to learn. If you're a traditionalist, this version will not satisfy your need to revisit the old story. However, if you're a hipster, a fan of folk-pop, or a recreational drug user who doesn't mind back pain (uncomfortable bleacher seats for a two-hour drama), this retelling will suit you just fine.................................................
Through December 22nd. Tickets: $12. 212-352-3101 Sanford Meisner Theater
164 11th Avenue, New York, NY 10011