By Carolyn Hayes Harmer
Gather 'round, children, for a bit of Christmas candor. In short, the parallels are scant between the world-premiere musical revue "Christmas Caroled!" (conceived and written by Daniel C. Cooney and Dayle Ann Hunt) and the classic Charles Dickens holiday tale. By this reviewer's count, there's an unpleasant grump agitated by seasonal cheer, a magical jump back in time, and a guy named Tim.
Truly, the strengths of this Encore Musical Theatre Company production do not lie in adaptation. But rather, under Cooney's direction, what does stand out is its throwback Christmas extravaganza, complete with a stream of variety show quirks and infectiously smiling faces.
A swift prologue in a drab, anonymous room introduces a drab, anonymous man, Abner Z. Scruggs (William Stutts, Jr.), whose entire agenda is to get stinking drunk and forget that it's Christmas. Clumsily established as a world-class humbugger, he then experiences a seismic event that knocks him back into his past as part of a famous comedy duo, specifically a '60s-era Christmas TV special with him and partner Jack Jacobs (Pete Podolski) as hosts.
To call whatever lessons or reparations Abner has in store half-baked would be generous. Indeed, without cue or counsel, he jumps right back into the old routine, and – other than some ham-fisted asides about the family he ignored in favor of showbiz – the show just goes on.
Yet the sooner the viewer can put the framing device out of mind, the better. Because in this production, "A Christmas Carol" might have inspired the title, but the exquisite TV variety special is its exclamation point.
Everything in the on-camera world has the sparkle of spectacle to it, from transforming Daniel C. Walker's set into a pristine studio-fake living room, to adorning it with the tasteful perfection of Anne Donevan's set dressing and properties. Designer Sharon Larkey Urick pulls out all the sartorial stops, outfitting 10 performers in daffy coordinated ensembles that would be well at home on "The Lawrence Welk Show." Although the lighting design (also by Walker) makes a cursory distinction between dramatic on-camera mood lighting and stripped back off-camera confrontation, the script offers frustratingly little in these moments between takes (underusing Tim Brayman and Michael Szymanski, MD, as behind-the-scenes workhorse types), so the device stalls out instead.
But again, most of the focus remains on the primetime show being filmed, and the bulk of it is sensational, thanks in no small part to new arrangements and orchestrations by R. MacKenzie Lewis. More than two dozen familiar tunes, devotional and secular alike, are given innovative and complex treatments as Lewis toys gleefully with fugue and genre and keeps the harmonies modulating. With Chris Rayis as music director and conductor, the collective vocals are strong, and featured soloists Mahalia Greenway and Jess Alexander both deliver repeated showstoppers.
Cooney's direction lovingly embraces the sense of fun, hokey insanity that passed for television entertainment in a time before devastating cool and hyperbolic cynicism. The TV personas' heightened faux earnestness proves just the right touch, casting silly proceedings into humorous relief, while also achieving tonal shifts that lead to a few surprisingly affecting moments. And although the performers are given little to work with in terms of text, their entertainment value is never in question.
As Jack, Podolski sports effortless rat-pack affability and a thousand-watt grin that eminently qualify him to lead the audience and Abner through his meandering journey. Greenway and Alexander are at home in the spotlight, but also blend with the cheerful ensemble (Sebastian Gerstner, Bryana Hall, Erika Jost, Colleen Kartheiser, Teola Lutsker, and Callen Snyder) in wholesome group numbers choreographed with vigor by Kristi Davis. The mercenary Stutts takes a rudderless protagonist and allows him to simply go with the grain instead of against it, enhancing the staged entertainment at the expense of an already-wobbly story arc.
Although there's little in terms of Scrooge-y satisfaction in "Christmas Caroled!," for most viewers, the production's massive Christmas catalogue and cheeky homage to TV variety specials of old can make up the difference. The show tosses aside its underdeveloped, perfunctory story in favor of a fully realized series of musical hits that keep on coming; the net result is a single-act performance that, at just over an hour, feels at once too long and too short. Yet anyone willing to overlook the weaknesses in the book can find melodic satisfaction on the other side, happy to see the forest for the white go-go boots and scarves gathered about the tree.
The Encore Musical Theatre Company
3126 Broad St., Dexter
3 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 11
7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 4, 11, 18
8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 28, Dec. 5, 12, 19
3 & 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 22, 29, Dec. 6, 13, 20
3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 23, 30, Dec. 7, 14, 21
70 minutes; no intermission