Review: Scrooge, the musical by Georgetown Palace Theatre
by Michael Meigs

The Palace has once again put a gigantic effort into the casting, preparation and playing of its holiday musical.  As with Annie last year , Scrooge the Musical by Leslie Bricusse has a big cast -- 24 bio'd players plus 23 charmers in the three children's casts (designated Nickleby, Copperfield and Pickwick, recalling characters from Dickens).  Except for six principals, the roles are double- or triple-cast, a policy of sharing out that must have made coordination of the 26 performances akin to writing up a railway timetable.   Plus there's a live five-musician orchestra playing somewhere backstage.


Director Ron Watson cast some of my favorites -- the engaging and talented Joe Penrod as Scrooge; Justin Langford doubling  as both young Ebenezer and as Scrooge's nephew; and Dale Schultz as the roundly epicurean Ghost of Christmas Past.  These three played together in Watson's staging of Man of La Mancha on the same stage just over a year ago, and  the most moving sequence in Scrooge the Musical features them.  Penrod the baritone sings about Happiness and Langford the tenor replies; shortly afterward, Schultz the bass adds his reflections.  


The audience had a fine time, and inevitably they rose to applaud when Penrod appeared at the curtain call.


From me, a couple of words for Leslie Bricusse, composer & librettist of this 1992 musical, adapted from the 1970 Albert Finney film that Bricusse scored (and for which he won an Academy award):


Bah.  Humbug.


That comment requires some explanation.


Leslie Bricusse essentially does a Hanna-Barbera version of Charles Dickens' novella.  Scrooge as Fred Flintstone -- loud mouthed, dim and aggressive in an oafish sort of way.  But loveable, too, especially once he has been brought around by the visitations -- for God's sake, Scrooge is bouncing around in a Santa Claus outfit for the final scenes. 


That just doesn't do it for me.  A Christmas Carol is not a story about toys and gifts and a dimwit.  Dickens wrote memorably about a man whose soul had been twisted and almost lost. With a fairy tale of lessons by threes -- past, present and yet to come -- he brought the man back to life.  Dickens' Ebenezer Scrooge isn't a comic Shylock; he's a man without hope and without belief.  Bricusse invents a Scrooge who transforms into a gleeful monkey when the Ghost of Christmas Past slips him a bit of the milk of human kindness; Dickens wrote of a character in whom that milk curdled long, long ago.  The original is a cautionary tale as much about death as about life.  In Bricusse's version as staged at the Palace, Jacob Marley temporarily back from the dead reminds me strongly of Michael Keeton in Beetlejuice -- a zany clown.


I acknowledge an attachment to A Christmas Carol, which quickly achieved mythic status after Dickens published it in 1843.  Many credit Dickens' descriptions with directly influencing subsequent British and American celebration of the holiday.  I first encountered A Christmas Carol as a scratchy 33-rpm LP recording featuring Lionel Barrymore.  Many years later I acquired the Patrick Stewart re-telling, on cassette tapes.   I have a DVD of the 1950s film featuring Alastair Sim, I fondly recall George C. Scott as Scrooge, and you can bet that I'll be going to hear Bernadette Nason do all the characters at the Austin Playhouse's Larry L. King Theatre.  Last year I played the old penny pincher myself, in a one-hour adaptation done at St. Mark's Episcopal Church.  Having lived in his skin, so to speak, I have some opinions about Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge.


This is a story of redemption, one that sets forth the ethos of Christianity in a light, almost teasing fashion.  For it to work, Scrooge must really be a soul about to be lost.  He is obdurate in his meanness because he mistrusts life and everyone in it.  The movement in the tale is Scrooge's gradual and reluctant re-connection to his own past and present.  At this Christmas season late in his life, his cold old heart is gradually warmed by memories and then is captured by Tiny Tim, a symbol of innocence who represents the "Christ" in "Christmas."  Scrooge makes an act of contrition and repentance, anonymously sends the Cratchets their Christmas turkey, and on Monday slyly upbraids his tardy clerk before revealing his own change of heart.


I guess all that interiority didn't play well on the musical stage, since not much of it remains in this version. Scrooge is quick to whimper "It's Not My Fault," reprising that plaint at the end of the first act.  Scrooge does witness Mrs. Cratchett's distress when husband Bob offers a toast to Scrooge as the "founder of the feast" -- but we do not see the old man particularly affected by Tiny Tim, even though he does per script inquire about the boy's prospects.


Musicals being musicals, Bricusse gives the townsfolk some jolly numbers to sing and dance.  He sets up the invisible, cackling Scrooge to witness his nephew's holiday party; in Act II he inserts the invisible, delighted Scrooge in  the marketplace dance Thank You Very Much -- without ever informing Scrooge that the debtors are celebrating Scrooge's death.   Afterwards, when Scrooge sees his own comic-book version of a gravestone, he swears off scroogliness and runs around the marketplace in red underwear and a Kris Kringle cap, loading the Crachett family up with the turkey and gifts.  No subtlety there and not much serious thought, either.


And -- excuse the pettiness of a purist -- why on earth does Bricusse re-name Scrooge's nephew?  The young man is Fred, not "Harry"!


I'd like to have had a bit more light on the spooky scenes. What were those banshee creatures that were tormenting the old miser?  And why is Death, the spectre of the future, almost invisible in the darkness except for his exaggerated skeletal hands? 


Like most Palace sets, this one is wonderfully detailed -- but it's a puzzle for the staging.  The crew pulled off the coup of bringing a metal spiral staircase in from Houston and planting it deep center stage.  The upper platform is used almost not at all, except for a nice silhouette effect at the end of Act I.  The spiral staircase is not useful for much, not even for the dances, and its twists are a challenge for blocking, visibility and sightlines.  For example, when Scrooge goes home, he mounts the staircase, disappears off right, then comes back on at ground level, presumably into an upper-story apartment.  For Fred's --oops, Harry's party, director Ron Watson chose with good sense not to station ghost and Scrooge on the upper level, for that would have been too far from the action; but their stage left vantage point on a slightly raised stair isn't much better.


Audiences will happily fill up the Palace for this production, and the world will little note nor long remember what I write here.  Joe Penrod, Ron Watson, and that huge cast will provide Christmas cheer, which is, after all, part of the mission of their exceptional organization.  Thanks to them -- many fewer thanks to Lesley Bricusse -- and, for the holiday season and for always,


God bless us, every one!



Click to view excerpts from the program for Scrooge, The Musical, by Georgetown Palace Theatre (pt. 1pt. 2insert).


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Scrooge, the musical
by Leslie Bricusse
Georgetown Palace Theatre

November 19 - December 31, 2010
Georgetown Palace Theatre
810 South Austin Avenue
Georgetown, TX, 78626