Rating (out of four stars): ★★★
Aside from, you know, the birth of Jesus, no story is more closely associated with the Christmas season than Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”
In short, everybody knows Ebenezer Scrooge, and for many that old curmudgeon’s tale of redemption has nestled in a special place in our hearts. That alone raises expectations, and when you combine that with a musical that had a decade-long run at Madison Square Garden, the bar just gets higher.
Perhaps that is why it so remarkable that Arizona Broadway Theatre’s production of “A Christmas Carol: The Musical,” presented at the Herberger Theater Center, still manages to deliver an utterly joyful experience.
With stunning and dynamic set design, beautiful choreography and music, and cast performances that live up to the Broadway billing, the production is an absolute delight and surely created some of those “moments” ABT Stage Director Joseph Martinez was striving for.
The show adapts Dickens’ classic novella in musical form following the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, a prosperous old man who holds personal wealth as far more important than happiness and the companionship of others with an angry, “Bah! Humbug!” at any mention of Christmas or charitable giving. But on Christmas Eve he is forced to confront his selfish ways when visited by three ghosts who lead him through his past, present and future. Through their guidance he sees the error of his ways and begins Christmas with a new, selfless outlook on life and the season.
The show is very much a traditional musical drama with fantastic musical theatre pop numbers originally composed by Alan Menken and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, both regarded as Broadway heavy-hitters. These stylings run the gauntlet of dark with heavy background instrumentals such as “Link By Link,” the warning song of Scrooge’s dead business partner and fellow ghouls, to the longing and relative bareness of ”A Place Called Home,” a song of longing, love and comfort sung by Scrooge, young Scrooge and his ex-love.
The latter in particular is sure to stick with you, and is also likely to make you shed a few tears.
A stunning set, striking costume design and lighting do an excellent job of creating a sense of place and setting the mood as well. In particular, the versatility of the set, use of shadows, and the costuming and special effects of the supernatural elements (ghouls, ghosts, and angels) are all quite striking.
The only shortcoming on the production side for me was the appearance of a prop skeleton manned by a person dressed in all black during “Link By Link.”
The scene features the appearance of Scrooge’s deceased business partner, Jacob Marley, accompanied by many ghouls who were actually fairly menacing, and frankly the skeleton was a bit jarring and felt rather out of place.
The greatest strength of the show, though, lies in the performances of its cast who absolutely brought their A-game, and in doing so made the show something truly special that stands out amongst the rest of the holiday theater fare.
In particular, the performances of James Rio, as Scrooge, and Renèe Kathleen Koher, as the Ghost of Christmas Past, were breathtaking and an absolute pleasure to witness.
Rio took a character that very easily could become a caricature and delivered a performance that felt genuine and sympathetic. And Koher’s Ghost of Christmas Past was captivating, humorous, and even a bit creepy. Her expressiveness would make Lucille Ball smile.
The classics are classics for a reason, and there will always be a place in our hearts for Dickens. And due to a beautiful production and knockout performances, “A Christmas Carol: The Musical” will surely find a place there as well.
“A Christmas Carol: The Musical” runs through Dec. 24 at the Herberger Theater Center. Tickets are available for purchase at the box office or online.