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‘A Christmas Carol’ wraps audiences in holiday spirit, despite changes

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Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s interpretation of “A Christmas Carol,” is typically the embodiment of classic Christmas traditions, nostalgia and messages with a Victorian aesthetic and lens. A significant amount of that essence was lost with this year’s changes, but some were for the better.

With a new script came new characters. I appreciated the addition of Belle and her family in Christmas Past, the reduction of Mr. Topper and Miss Lilly’s lines in Fred’s Christmas Present and the family who escapes paying their debt to Scrooge in Christmas Yet to Come.

Those who enjoy audience participation will likely enjoy this show. But repeatedly yelling answers to yes or no questions or being told “Look behind you!” while watching is reminiscent of “Blue’s Clues” reruns. While the idea of participation is meant to draw audiences into the story, it was incredibly distracting and juvenile.

The addition of audience participation ate up performance time. While the audience repeated an answer to Scrooge’s question five times, each response demanded to be louder and parts of the script had to be dropped. Gone was the development of several side characters and the Christmas Present scenes of the poor and unfortunate’s celebrations. The symbolism of the shilling ring Scrooge received from his sister that ended up in the garbage after his death was drowned out by excess crowd participation.

This year’s Scrooge (Jonathan Wainwright) lacked strong character. He delivered his miserly lines without much malice, his witty quips without much punch and his newfound cheer without much infectious joy. However, incorporating audience participation to build a personality is a major hurdle.

I was confused as to what vibe the Rep was going for in this new interpretation. While audience participation was clearly meant to liven things up, the rest of the changes made the show a lot darker.

Added special effects in skull projections on Scrooge’s front door, Marley ripping through the wall and violent paupers in Scrooge’s dreams made this show usually about well-meaning ghosts a lot scarier. The directors even changed a scene where the Cratchit family mourns at Tiny Tim’s coffin to having the family watch their child die. The new script also took out nearly half the jokes of previous incarnations, contributing to the production’s somber tone.

While the altered script resulted in highs and lows, the technical changes were the best of all.

The new set is two concentric turntables which revolve around each other to create each location. I applaud the set designer for creating such compact, fascinating scenery that functions so well. Although all the walls were painted the same for each location, the coordination of the backdrop went a little too far and Cratchit’s poor kitchen ended up not looking that different from Scrooge’s boarding school.

The Ghost of Christmas Past’s new costume was stunning. This new version captured the book’s description of a figure both human and candlelight. Christmas Past now is a glitter-skinned woman with a white dress embedded with gently pulsating white lights, silver hair and a flickering candlelight atop her head, as opposed to a an elegant genderless figure. The coolest display of the costume is when the dress, candlelight headpiece and even her hair glow a bright yellow when Scrooge extinguishes her light at the end of the act.

I would still recommend the Rep’s “A Christmas Carol.” While this year’s interpretation is not as good as it has been in the past 14 Christmases I have seen it, it’s still a heartwarming story, now with more special effects.

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