Review: A Christmas Carol: A Rockin' Family Musical by Zach Theatre
by Brian Paul Scipione
Upon entering the Topfer Theatre at Zach to watch its first indoor production since the pandemic began, one discovered a stark reminder of the significance of this moment: a simple piece of paper on each seat stating, “This seat has been empty for 626 days.” The choice of play with its triumphant ending matched the celebratory attitude that dominated the crowd who'd made donations to purchase glow sticks to enliven the party atmosphere of singing, dancing, special effects, and, of course, disco mirror balls.
Zach Theatre’s annual production of the A Christmas Carol, begun in 2014, always involves telling the classic story through contemporary pop music. Dave Steakley, Zach’s artistic director, again directs the production. Steakley is fast nearing his 30th anniversary with Zach, and it's safe to say no one knows this space and this particular production more intimately. This year’s twist was two-pronged: there was heavier influence from R and B music and no desire to shy away from the story’s darker moments. Zach PR hints at the heavy R and B with its promise of “three soulful ghosts.” As for as the darker moments, the production often brings to mind the borderline sinister 1984 film version starring George C. Scott.
Giant clock parts surround the proscenium arch, and the ominous tolling of a bell pierces the silence to foreshadow the theme of time. That ominous forboding is shattered by upbeat, lively choreography and a swagger-filled version of the Christmas classic “Silver Bells” by Scrooge’s nephew Fred, played by Michael Valentine. The stage begins to rotate and the chorus breaks into a joyous dance. Charity seekers enter the office to appeal to Scrooge's long repressed better nature, performing an emotive version of the Doobie Brother’s classic “Long Train Running” with the altered chorus “Without love? Where would we be right now?”
Scrooge’s classic reply—“Are there no prisons? What about the workhouses?”—not only shuts them down, it rings more harrowing then ever in our current economic climate.
The show continues full steam ahead with Paul Sanchez as Bob Crachit joining the charity seekers. Sanchez is reprising his role here —which is a wonderful thing, considering he's about the most Bob Crachit of Bob Crachits one could ever imagine.Sanchez'scherubic expressions,îirrepressible kindness, golden voice, and boyish naïveté come through in every song and dance. His clear tenor is countered by the deep, booming voices of Marc Pouhé’s Scrooge and Roderick Sanford’s Jacob Marley. The call-and-response transforms their songs into an evocative but cool and funky sgospel-jazz hybrid.
Sandford’s Marley warns Scrooge of his fate by combining two very different but fitting songs: the O’Jays' “For the Love of Money” and The Verves' “Bitter Sweet Symphony.”
The dramatic tension of the show is thrown off kilter with the appearance of the three ghosts who inject a huge dose of levity into the proceedings. Kenny Williams, Jr as the Ghost of Christmas Past begins the fun by bringing Scrooge into his past and showcasing the person he used to be. Here's where this year’s production really stands out.
Martavius Parrish as young Scrooge plays his storyline as much more than a mere shadow of the past. He imbues the role with an energy that's split between playful youth and intense work discipline. Parrish reminds one of the stereotypical 1980’s businessmen of cinema and television, all work and all play. When Francine Bayola as Belle gives him an ultimatum insisting he choose between her and his work, the tension is real even though the audience knows the inevitable outcome.
It would be remiss of me to mention all this incredible talent and leave out Leslie McDonel as the Ghost of Christmas Present and Mrs. Gilchrist. Her voice and unrestrained glee were infectious.
This year’s A Christmas Carol is a wonderful response to the difficulties the Austin theater world has faced over the last few years. It declares that just as Dicken’s tale is timeless, so is the spirit of creative endeavor of the people who channel it for the audience’s viewing pleasure.
November 24 - January 02, 2021
1510 Toomey Road
Austin, TX, 78704
November 24, 2021 - January 2, 2022
The Topfer at ZACH | 202 South Lamar | Austin, TX | 78704
Start at $25 available at ZACH’s box office – 512-476-0541 x1, zachtheatre.org
Tickets $25 - $84, available online HERE
Health and Safety -- Some changes you can expect
Given the current state of the health crisis in Austin, at this time masks must be worn at all times on the ZACH campus, including throughout all ZACH Theatre productions. If this policy changes we will update patrons quickly and clearly.
For a complete list of ZACH's Health & Safety commitments, please visit zachtheatre.org/healthandsafety