Artists’ Exchange celebrated its 15th annual production of A Christmas Carol: The Musical Reclamation of Ebenezer Scrooge this holiday season. The production, adapted and directed by Rhiannon Lynn Annin, with original music by Ethan Miller, ran from December 6-22 at Theatre 82 in Cranston. Despite being performed every Christmas by various theatrical groups from elementary schools to the finest playhouses, this play always manages to draw us out. Maybe we hope to get into the Christmas spirit and experience a little magic.
Based on the Charles Dickens novella you surely read in middle school, audiences experienced a modern-day musical adaptation as they ventured through Ebenezer Scrooge’s past, present and future. Just as in the classic tale, first published on December 19 in 1843, Christmas is ultimately restored in Scrooge’s heart as he takes a candid look down Memory Lane.
This was not Annin’s directorial debut. In 2012, she attended The National Theatre Institute in Waterford, Conn, where she got to try her hand acting in various styles, playwriting, directing, set and costume design, singing and voice. “I drifted away from all theater practices for a few years while I started a family, but found my way back in 2016 stage managing for A Christmas Carol at Artists’ Exchange,” explains Annin. “This past summer and fall, I directed (also stage managed and light designed) Many Sides to the Reaper, produced and written by Nick Albanese, and quickly found my footing in the dramatic arts once more. This overlapped with the beginning of rehearsals for A Christmas Carol. In short, this is my second “solo project” directing since college, but I also teach a variety of theater classes with children at Artists’ Exchange. During these, I’ve been able to brush up on my directing skills and have found confidence in the craft that I never had before.”
Annin feels the production was successful in more ways than she could have imagined. “One of Artists’ Exchange’s goals is incorporating differently-abled adults as actors, and our guys went above and beyond my expectations. They were some of the loudest singers and had the biggest smiles of all the cast. Many of them are from Gateways to Change — our parent company — and others are from the community and attend classes at Artists’ Exchange during the daytime, where I teach as well. Bobby Macaux (Richard Wilkins) is part of nearly all of our Artists’ Exchange productions and is an amazingly talented actor. He takes on art projects as well inside the building. He has a special talent for comedy and it’s always a blast seeing what he comes up with on stage.”
Bah! Humbug! This is the now-antiquated term for fraud, used by Scrooge to downplay Christmas cheer, and, well, Christmas altogether. Our modern-day Scrooge uses the word and of course we all know what he’s getting at. While I can appreciate a modern adaptation, I sometimes struggled with some of the elements. At one point, our infamous Scrooge, portrayed by a young man named Liam Roberts (who participated in Artists’ Exchange’s summer youth program Heathers: The Musical this past summer), tossed off his shirt, exposing a buff physique in a ‘wife beater’ tank top. Despite the attempt to age Roberts with hair powder and skeletal makeup, one suspects Dickens would cringe at the notion of old man Scrooge looking like eye candy to half the audience. There are just some things that cannot be refashioned.
What did work was portraying Scrooge’s nephew, Fred (Alex Brunelle) as a typical millennial. Fred had us laughing with his outspoken, impish attitude when addressing his uncle. No doubt any teen in a 19th-century Dickens piece would be a perfect gentleman; seeing today’s teen interact with the old curmudgeon was a refreshing change.
Billy Petterson, who portrayed Marley — a role shared this year by veteran Mark Carter, who has played the role all 15 years — especially stood out. He has a heavenly voice, and yes — he is the son of one of RI’s well-known original musicians, Bill Petterson. His talent is all his own though, as he played a rather convincing spectre.
“I was so very lucky to work with such a gifted cast,” says Annin. “It was not until they put the dialogue, lyrics, and music to stage that I made a vital discovery. Ebenezer Scrooge, as a direct result of his flaws and shortcomings, lacks something we all take for granted: memories. Rather than basking in nostalgia or merely reflecting on the dearly departed, Ebenezer has blocked out nearly all of his past and continues on in life unfeeling. He saturates himself in ‘bah, humbug.’ Once Ebenezer learns to harness his past, truly see his present, and look to the future, he reaches his reclamation.”
The set was simple, with just a desk, chair and some empty frames on the wall. I took these in their basest forms when they were first hung on the wall, and was delighted each time the characters added photos in the frames to match the current happenings. These moving pictures truly added a unique stage presence. What didn’t work was having the cast move through the audience as there was just a narrow lane for them to get through. Nice idea, but a sold-out show necessitated extra seats, compromising audience comfort. Bittersweet, as there’s nothing wrong with sold-out shows in the world of theater. Says Annin, “By the end of our 18th performance run, we were selling out (and technically over-booking) every single performance, which — to put it plainly — blows my mind entirely. Although we had tremendous support from the family and friends of the cast and crew, there seemed to be an overwhelming number of people from the general community coming to see our production. As a director, I couldn’t ask for anything more. In a cast of 33, every single actor valued his/her role not only in the play, but as part of our ensemble. There were many tears closing night.”
There are no accidents? Annin met musical director Ethan Miller via social media and realized not only had their paths already passed, but he was perfect for this role. She explains, “He composed entire orchestrations for each song, recorded vocal tracks, worked with the actors, and then provided performance tracks. He attended every single performance and ran the sound board so every cue was meticulously timed. The only performance he wasn’t in the booth for was when he performed a miracle. Our Scrooge lost his voice entirely and Ethan filled in without a single rehearsal. …I cannot wait to collaborate with him further, and to see what else he has in store.” She also has tremendous praise for stage manager Jordyn Smith, who “takes on all tasks with ease and grace. Jordyn also excels at precision in the booth, and I was entirely lucky to have her by my side through these three weeks of performances.”
Although the production is over, Annin and Miller hope to have a website up in the next few months to make their show available for licensing at other theaters for the 2019 Christmas season and beyond.
Visit http://www.artists-exchange.org to see what’s up and coming at the theater.