TV Review – A Christmas Carol – The Concert
A Christmas Carol
Okay, the good news is that Charles Dickens is still a magnificent writer. His witty, wonderful narrative still exists in all it’s many forms. His evergreen story of curmudgeonly Ebeneezer Scrooge’s redemption over the course of one haunted Christmas night is still relevant and still worth praise.
The bad news is, this new production of A Christmas Carol – The Concert that will be continuously played on various PBS stations does nothing to help Dickens’ work. It’s not the performers’ fault. As with most musical theater singers they are able, game, and fully committed to the work. They all have terrific voices. And in musicals performers often find themselves jumping with both feet first into sometimes questionable material. But wow is this material questionable!
This tale is presented in the guise of one of the countless theater concerts they parade through PBS on a regular basis. You’ve seen them before, whether it be your Celtic Women or your Celtic Thunders or your Kingston Trio Reunions or that one Fabio looking guy who plays classic rock on a violin and the lady in the PBS studio seems to be feeling the vapors every time she sees him. You know these shows. The audiences are filled with aging baby boomers politely enjoying a pleasant non-threatening evening while clapping in the right places and strolling down memory lane.
Some of those shows can be terrific. Fleetwood Mac‘s first reunion concert which became a fundraising mainstay is outstanding. Tommy Emmanual and his guitar are pretty spectacular. And if you want to see the best of this format where they do a concert version of a stage show, I urge you to seek out the Les Misérables: The Dream Cast in Concert which came out in 1995. That show featured the best performers in each of the roles from various productions around the world including multiple Valjeans. It is moving and fantastic and puts the recent film version to shame as far as raw emotional power. So there is genuine evidence that the filmed concert format can work.
But in the case of this Christmas Carol concert, it elicits a combination of unintentional laughter and blundering obviousness. This is due largely to the book and lyrics written adapted by Alisa Hauser. Yes, often it is Dickens’ own wellworn words set to music. But the songs beat you over the head with their themes. Do you understand that the welfare of those children at the feet of the ghost of Christmas present (you know the ones, Ignorance and Want) are the business of everyone? If you don’t you are about to because you are going to hear about a dozen choruses of how it is so.
For sure the moment this production officially jumps the shark is at the first appearance of Jacob Marley’s ghost. The moment is supposed to be surreal and terrifying as his image appears on Scrooge’s door knocker. But then the massive chorus chimes in singing “Marley’s face, Marley’s face” over and over. It feels a lot more like when the chorus of O Streetcar is singing about the decadence of New Orleans on The Simpsons then it does as an authentically dramatic moment. Those watching this with me couldn’t stop laughing.
And then some unsettling unintentional racism seems to seep into the concert. While all but Michael Lindner who plays Scrooge are playing multiple roles, it is the song they chose for Jacob Marley that creates an uncomfortable juxtaposition. Kyle Scatliffe who is of African decent plays Marley at this point. The lyrics are about the chains he forged in life that are attached to him for eternity. That racial dimension could have actually enhanced the point being made here and possibly made a stronger point. But the music is some sort of 70s funk derivative. So you end up watching this black man singing about being in chains while some sort of pseudo-soul is backing him up. It’s meant to create variety in the show but just ends up feeling distasteful.
Scott Coulter sings the parts of Bob Cratchitt, Scrooge’s nephew, and Scrooge as a younger man. And it is during the ghost of Christmas past flashback to when Scrooge’s love dumps him for loving money more than her that the best song of the show occurs. It is a pretty duet between Scrooge and Arya Daire as Belle. Coulter has a lovely voice. If the whole show were more in the flavor of that two minutes, it would end up being a very different experience.
The entire cast of Chicago theater luminaries is strong. The orchestra is well appointed. The audience is strangely sedate (almost no clapping throughout the show). But the music itself is far from classic. If you really want a musical version, go rent the Albert Finney film with it’s well known hit “Thank you very much”. Even Paul Williams‘ songs for A Muppet Christmas Carol are better than this. If you want to see the best version, there’s not beating Alistair Sim as Scrooge in the 1952 film version. But you may want to skip this PBS go around.