Scrooge: the Haunting of Ebenezer

GarrettBy Philip Pearce

A BRITISH ACTOR I once knew told me of the struggles he went through preparing a one-man show for London’s West End stage. With a conventional script he could build a lot of his performance on the energy and motivation he gave to and received from other actors in the cast. But in a solo assignment he couldn’t bounce energy and motivation off anyone else. He had to learn how to create them single-handed from inside himself.

Jeff Garrett, a Bay Area Equity actor now offering his dynamic one-man adaptation of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol for Jewel Theatre in Santa Cruz, seems to have found a solution to my London friend’s problem. His Scrooge: The Haunting of Ebenezer exploits a relationship that’s even more central to drama than the interaction of actor with actor—and that is the interaction of actor with audience.

In his time, Dickens was himself a one-man performer, nearly as well-known for staging solo theatrical readings of his works as he was for writing them. Little wonder that his time-tested tale provides a tour de force player like Garrett with an array of eccentric stage characters caught up in playable melodramatic situations.

Garrett doesn’t subtly woo you into the story, he pushes it into your face: you can’t stop listening, watching and feeling. “Marley was dead” is not a reflective introductory announcement. It explodes onto the stage, bellowed out by a messenger who looks like he’s just been struck by lightning. When Scrooge sees his front door knocker transformed into the face of the late Marley, a grisly death mask jumps out of the darkness. Marley’s ghostly groans are the ear-splitting howls of a wounded animal. Garrett has mined neglected elements of the familiar Christmas favorite to remind us that the main body of A Christmas Carol isn’t a bubbly dose of soft-pedaled Victorian spookery; it’s a detailed account of an extended nightmare.

He moves from growling rage to whispered pathos to soaring elation through 31 characters, leaving no doubt about who is speaking or what’s happening to them. He does it with a flexible face, a gift for movement (he has terrific hands) and, most of all, a voice he uses with the precision and force of a singer. In an informal cider and chocolate reception after the show, Garrett confirmed that in preparing a role he depends heavily on sound and listening. “I sometimes rehearse or direct with my eyes closed. If it sounds right, I know it is right.”

And the current production offers some bizarre but fascinating vocal surprises. Fezziwig speaks in a soaring glissando that gives his Christmas dance party the dizzy wildness of one of those half-scary pen and ink Phiz illustrations sandwiched into the pages of your Dickens novel. The Ghost of Christmas Present, usually played as a genial, apple-cheeked ‘yo-ho-ho’ merrymaker, here becomes a strident, lumbering giant who is unmistakably drunk and yet remains firmly in control of everything that happens on his watch.

It’s not your grandparents’ staged Christmas Carol, but it probably sticks closer to the text of the book and it moves with riveting power at the Colligan Theater through December 17th.

Mamma Mia!

MammaMiaKids2

By Philip Pearce

MAMMA MIA!, seen around the world by who knows how many millions since its 1999 London premiere, kept up the good work last weekend with nearly-full to sold out houses at PacRep’s Golden Bough Theatre.

The show’s musical score, in case you hadn’t heard, links 22 smash singles by ABBA’s Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus to a romantic story by British playwright Catherine Johnson that holds your interest without overtaxing your intellect. It’s loud and tuneful and fun, with slick direction by Susanne Burns and a nice guitar, bass, drum and keyboard combo led by Desma Johnson.

The night I attended, an audience full of baby boomers cheered and whistled as the cast brought loud and strobe-lit life to numbers like “Dancing Queen,” “Super Trouper,“ “Money, Money, Money” and the chart-topping title song.

Mamma Mia! is an apt name for a story about a 20-year-old romantic named Sophie (“I Have a Dream”) and her strong-willed unmarried mom Donna, (“The Winner Takes It All”). Donna’s determined feminist independence gets knocked down and then rebuilt when Sophie secretly arranges a reunion with three men Donna had one-night stands with nine months before the girl’s birth. Understandably curious to know which of the gents should lead her down the aisle and give her away when she marries a nice local lad named Sky, Sophie invites the three candidates to her wedding. Don’t ask awkward questions like how she immediately knows the addresses of three strangers. What matters is that they show up and complications ensue. Johnson might well have named the show Papa Mia if only ABBA had written a hit number with that title.

Played by a winsome Nicole Cofresi, the busybody Sophie charms as a character, dances with grace and sings with a lyric soprano that pleases but sometimes gets drowned out by the band. As Donna, now the busy manager of a popular Greek island taverna, Equity player Lydia Lyons wonderfully projects determined feminist chutzpah, not least when she reunites for the wedding with the two other members of her old glamour girl singing group, (“Donna and the Dynamos”). As retired sixties divas who still know how to sizzle, Tanya (Jill Miller) is all Nordic blonde put downs and Rosie (Sheila Townsend) bubbles and bounces delightfully.

The dancing is excellent, thanks to Miller who not only plays Tanya but choreographs the show. Mamma Mia! works best when it’s moving smoothly through big musical numbers and bits of light comedy like Rosie’s Act 2 courtship of Bill (“Take a Chance on Me”). It’s less successful in a brief but embarrassing dream sequence, which attempts to paint Sophie’s quandary over three possible dads as a bit of Agnes DeMille psycho ballet.

The cast list is built around groups of three. Sophie’s three possible dads are nicely contrasted, adroitly acted and effectively sung by James Brady as Sam, Scott McQuiston as Bill and Stephen Poletti as Harry. Sophie herself shares gossip and giggles with two attractive buddies named Ali (Tara Marie Lucido) and Lisa (Lizzy Lippa). Fiancé Sky (Joshua Reeves) meanwhile does some drunken horsing around at a bachelor night party organized by two tireless taverna waiters, Pepper (Malakai Howard) and Eddie (Brian Balistreri).

Sobered up after his bachelor night, Sky takes offense at not having been told in advance about Sophie’s three-man parenting contest. But he still goes loyally through with the wedding, only to have Sophie, for reasons I couldn’t fathom, halt things at the altar and decide to stick to Sky but, to follow her mother’s lead, dispense with marriage. Never mind; her unexpected decision prompts the quick-thinking Sam to do what Cary Grant does at the end of The Philadelphia Story: there are a clergyman, a congregation and some bridesmaids on hand, all dressed up with nowhere to go. Why not marry the gal he loved-and-lost all those years ago and bring on a happy ending?

It’s that kind of show. As with those old pre-Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, you’re not there to worry much about plot or character. You pay your money to watch Fred dance cheek to cheek with Ginger or, in this case, Sophie, Donna and all those other attractive people sing and dance their way through those nice ABBA tunes. The company, in fact, follows the curtain call with an all-hands reprise of favorites from the show that ought to send everyone home humming.

Mamma Mia! plays weekends plus Thursdays (plus one on Thanksgiving Eve) at the Golden Bough through December 23.

Photo by Stephen Moorer