A Christmas Carol

A joyful miser: ‘Christmas Carol’ at Portland Playhouse

For the fourth year, the Playhouse's touching version of the Dickens classic lights up the stage

A recent article surfaced from the think tank the Acton Institute, supported by the next secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, which wants us to “rethink our position on child labor.” When Charles Dickens penned the novella A Christmas Carol in 1843, he had in mind the women and children he termed “victims of the Industrial Revolution”: the poor London souls who toiled to early deaths under the smokestacks of early factories. For all the Scrooges out there who’ve grown tired of the Currier and Ives Victorian death grip on the holiday aesthetic, this seasonal reminder of Christmases past, present, and yet to come may be the snake oil your hot cider needs.

At Portland Playhouse, which has opened the fourth annual production of its multiple award-winning version of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge – a delicious Dickens name and noun, somewhere between screw and gouge – is immediately distinguishable from the rest of the characters onstage. Jen Rowe’s Scrooge wears a perma-scowl, and loafs with a purposed business shuffle. She wears a black dovetail suit, her hair is pulled back with pincher precision, and her complexion is near ash. Scrooge the misanthrope, horrible old miser, pales in the sights of the rosy-cheeked and ornately clothed villagers. Rowe’s diction is on point, like a rusty typewriter key punching paper. She takes little to no time looking up from her counting ledger, except to raise an eyebrow in disapproval or her can’t-be-bothered voice.

A light in the darkness: Portland Playhouse's "A Christmas Carol." Photo: Brud Giles

A light in the darkness: The Playhouse’s “Christmas Carol.” Photo: Brud Giles

The outside of the old church where Portland Playhouse makes its home looks more like late autumn. The neighborhood is filled with a few Christmas baubles in the yards, but mostly decorated with protest signs. Once you’re in the door of the theater, the angry aura of the president-elect is swept away in a candlelit hue. Cockney accents of passersby welcome you, and the warm voices of what seems a spontaneous choir reach your ears. The scene for Portland Playhouse’s A Christmas Carol is an immersive dunk into a world long gone by.

Continues…

Drammy Awards: a Playhouse double play

Portland Playhouse's 'Light in the Piazza' and 'A Christmas Carol' take both top production trophies

Portland Playhouse pulled off a tough double play at Monday night’s Drammy Awards, taking top honors in both major production categories – best play of the season for its stripped-down version of A Christmas Carol, and best musical play for The Light in the Piazza. 

The crowd gets into the action for the opening puppet-show strut to "The Circle of Life." Photo: Henk Pander

The crowd gets into the action for the opening puppet-show strut to “The Circle of Life.” Photo: Henk Pander

The celebration of the best achievements in Portland theater during the 2013-14 season packed the house at the Crystal Ballroom with theater folk and theater fans, many dressed to the nines and others to the twos or threes. The mood was convivial verging on rowdy, punctuated during one long stretch by the drone of a punk band playing loudly somewhere downstairs, and hosted with wit and dash by actor Isaac Lamb, who occasionally ceded the spotlight to his vigorously tap-dancing wife-to-be, Amy Beth Frankel. If anyone caught their act on videotape, it could go viral.

Dapper Isaac Lamb, the Drammys' emcee. Photo: Owen Carey

Dapper Isaac Lamb, the Drammys’ emcee. Photo: Owen Carey

Piazza was the evening’s closest thing to a runaway, walking off with five prizes: best production, actress in a musical (Meredith Kaye Clark), supporting actress in a musical (Jennifer Goldsmith), supporting actor in a musical (David Meyers), and musical direction (Eric Nordin). A Christmas Carol took top awards for ensemble in a play and director in a play (Cristi Miles) in addition to best production.

Well Arts Institute's Youth Program accepted the Mary Brand Award. Photo: Ann Singer

Ann Singer, Well Arts Institute’s youth program coordinator, accepted the $2,000 Mary Brand Award from Julie Accuardi of the Portland Civic Theatre Guild.

Oregon Children’s Theatre took four awards for its sweet and funny high school outcast musical Zombie in Love, and Kristeen Willis Crosser was a double individual winner, taking home the hardware for scenic design (Gidion’s Knot) and lighting design (A Bright New Boise), both at Third Rail Rep. One category, best actress in a play, ended in a tie vote. Amy Newman (Gidion’s Knot) and Maureen Porter (Crooked, CoHo Productions) shared the prize.

After an hour of drinking, preening, and general hobnobbing, the ceremony got off to a rousing start with a long Irish yowl of a song from Chris Murray, who’s starring as the not-quite-murderous Irish lad Christy in The Playboy of the Western World at Artists Rep, followed by a Lion King-style puppet show threading rambunctiously through the crowd. Among the costumed paraders were a donkey, a latke, a fish, a teapot, a snake, and several bottles of booze. They set the tone for much of the rest of the evening: congenial, creative, a little outrageous, fun, and quite long. At the end of the ceremony, Lamb performed a hilarious Portlandified riff on the “River City” song from The Music Man that would’ve made a knockout opening number. By the time it finally came, much of the crowd was already heading for the bars or home – a shame, but an understandable one.

Horsing around at the opening puppet parade. Photo: Henk Pander

Horsing around at the opening puppet parade. Photo: Henk Pander

The 17-member Drammy Committee of writers and theater professionals considered almost 120 productions from the awards’ 36th season. Several current shows opened too late for consideration. This year, after several years of choosing multiple winners in each category, the committee returned to picking a single winner from a pre-announced list of finalists in each category, making the Drammys feel more like the Oscars or Tonys. The finalists in each category are listed here.

The cast of Portland Playhouse's "A Christmas Carol" celebrate their best-production Drammy. Photo: Owen Carey

The cast of Portland Playhouse’s “A Christmas Carol” celebrate their best-production Drammy. Photo: Owen Carey

Grant Turner, founder of Northwest Classical Theatre,  drew appreciative nods during his acceptance speech for his Special Achievement Award. “Take the time to hone your craft,” he advised, “and don’t take (a play) on until you’re able.” He continued: “Believe in your authors, and your audience will believe in you.”  Turner, who started the Shakespeare-centric classical company more than 15 years ago, is moving to eastern Oregon but will return to Portland for specific projects.

Van Voris (left) and Hoffman indulge in some interpretive oratory. Photo: Owen Carey

Van Voris (left) and Hoffman indulge in some interpretive oratory. Photo: Owen Carey

Actors Todd Van Voris and Gavin Hoffman sent titters racing around the room with their dramatic readings of “actual posts on PDX Backstage.” And when the Light in the Piazza company gathered onstage to accept the best-musical award, Susannah Mars drew extended cheers and a couple of boos when she proudly announced, “We did a musical without microphones!

It was that kind of night.

 

2014 DRAMMY AWARD WINNERS

 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A PLAY

Michael Fisher-Welsh
The Quality of Life
Artists Repertory Theatre

 

BEST SCENIC DESIGN

Kristeen Willis Crosser
Gidion’s Knot
Third Rail Repertory Theatre

 

BEST PROPERTIES DESIGN

Drew Dannhorn
The Giver
Oregon Children’s Theatre

 

BEST DESIGN AND FABRICATION AWARD

John Ellingson
James and the Giant Peach
Northwest Children’s Theater

 

SPECIAL THEATRICAL ACHIEVEMENT AWARD

Atomic Arts
Trek in the Park
2009-2013

 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL

Jennifer Goldsmith
The Light in the Piazza
Portland Playhouse

 

BEST SOUND DESIGN

Annalise Albright Woods
pool (no water)
Theatre Vertigo

 

BEST YOUNG PERFORMER

Blake Peebles
Zombie in Love
Oregon Children’s Theatre

 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A MUSICAL

David Meyers
The Light in the Piazza
Portland Playhouse

 

BEST CHOREOGRAPHY 

Dan Murphy
Plaid Tidings
Broadway Rose Theatre Company

 

BEST PIT ENSEMBLE

9 to 5: The Musical
Stumptown Stages

 

PATA SPOTLIGHT AWARDS

Stage Manager: Emma Lewins
Crew Member: Don Crossley
Ballyhoo (formerly known as “Other”): Val and Jim Liptak

 

BEST COSTUME DESIGN

Jen LaMastra
James and the Giant Peach
Northwest Children’s Theater

 

BEST MAKE UP DESIGN

Caitlin Fisher-Draeger
The Revenants
The Reformers

 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A PLAY

Meghan Chambers
Crooked
CoHo Productions / Philip Cuomo and Maureen Porter

 

BEST PROJECTION DESIGN

Jeff Kurihara
The Giver
Oregon Children’s Theatre

 

BEST LIGHTING DESIGN

Kristeen Willis Crosser
A Bright New Boise
Third Rail Repertory Theatre

 

Catherine Egan accepts her award for movement design for Push Leg's "Nighthawks." Photo: Owen Carey

Catherine Egan accepts her award for movement design for Push Leg’s “Nighthawks.” Photo: Owen Carey

BEST MOVEMENT DESIGN

Catherine Egan
Nighthawks
Push Leg

 

BEST DEVISED WORK

Nighthawks
Push Leg

 

Special Achievement Award winner Grant Turner. Photo: Owen Carey

Special Achievement Award winner Grant Turner. Photo: Owen Carey

SPECIAL ACHIEVEMENT AWARD

 Grant Turner
Founding Artistic Director
Northwest Classical Theatre Company

 

BEST MUSIC DIRECTION

Eric Nordin
The Light in the Piazza
Portland Playhouse

 

BEST DIRECTOR OF A MUSICAL

Marcella Crowson
Zombie in Love
Oregon Children’s Theatre

 

BEST ACTOR IN A MUSICAL

David Studwell
Fiddler on the Roof
Portland Center Stage

 

BEST ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL

Merideth Kaye Clark
The Light in the Piazza
Portland Playhouse

 

BEST ENSEMBLE IN A MUSICAL

Plaid Tidings
Broadway Rose Theatre Company

 

Solo performance winner Damon Kupper in front of an image from his show, "Last November." Photo: Owen Carey

Solo performance winner Damon Kupper in front of an image from his show, “A Night in November.” Photo: Owen Carey

BEST SOLO PERFORMANCE

Damon Kupper
A Night in November
corrib theatre

 

BEST ENSEMBLE IN A PLAY

 A Christmas Carol
Portland Playhouse

 

BEST ORIGINAL SCRIPT

Michelle Elliott
Zombie in Love
Oregon Children’s Theatre

 

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE    

Danny Larsen, Music
Michelle Elliott, Lyrics
Zombie in Love
Oregon Children’s Theatre

 

 

PORTLAND CIVIC THEATRE GUILD AWARDS 

Mary Brand Award $2,000
Recipient: Well Arts Institute

Portland Civic Theatre Award in Support of Theatre $3,000
Recipient: Action/Adventure Theatre

The Leslie O. Fulton Fellowship $5,000
Recipient: Jill Westerby Gonzales

 

BEST DIRECTOR OF A PLAY

Cristi Miles
A Christmas Carol
Portland Playhouse

 

Best actor winner Allen Nause," "The Caretaker" at Imago. Photo: Owen Carey

Best actor winner Allen Nause,” “The Caretaker” at Imago. Photo: Owen Carey

BEST ACTOR IN A PLAY

Allen Nause
The Caretaker
Imago Theatre

 

BEST ACTRESS IN A PLAY (tied)

Amy Newman
Gidion’s Knot
Third Rail Repertory Theatre

Maureen Porter
Crooked
CoHo Productions / Philip Cuomo and Maureen Porter

 

Best actress co-winner Maureen Porter, "Crooked," CoHo Productions. Photo: Owen Carey

Best actress co-winner Maureen Porter, “Crooked,” CoHo Productions. Photo: Owen Carey

BEST PRODUCTION OF A MUSICAL

The Light in the Piazza
Portland Playhouse

 

BEST PRODUCTION OF A PLAY

A Christmas Carol
Portland Playhouse

 

 

 

‘A Circus Carol’ is familiar, yet incomparable

Mounting two distinct holiday shows with almost no crossover, Wanderlust's got it going on.

I’d heard of Wanderlust’s two holiday shows in (ahem) Christmases Past. I was aware that “White Album Christmas” and “A Circus Carol” were seasonal standards. Still, I had yet to seen them, and based on limited exposure to much older monthly shows at Bossanova, I’d made a few assumptions. I figured that the shows would be PRETTY great, but also pretty similar to one another, two forums to repackage the same talented circus acts, with a very simple narrative through-line.

When I caught “White Album” a couple weeks ago, the storyline at least was what I’d expected: a family of ringers from the audience—a little girl and her two ghastly parents—interacted contentiously with Mickens, and eventually the daughter (played by Meg Russell) took to the stage. Fair enough; broadly drawn heroes and villains drum up bigger yays and boos from an all-ages crowd. But as for the rest of the show…I was wowed. The band was particularly superb, and the routines were dazzling. The personnel were so plentiful, and the scene changes so sudden, and the show so long (about 3 hours), it was almost too much, and hard for even an avid note-taker like me to track. I thought, “Surely the next show will re-use some of this work. I’ll sit on these notes and write up both shows at once, telling what each notable act did at both events.”

Nope. As it turned out, “A Circus Carol” was completely distinct from “White Album,” with not just a different band, but a wholly different cast of characters, and a changed ratio of tricks to tale. Where “White Album” was a skill showcase hung on a thread of narrative, “Carol” was a full-fledged musical with very witty dialogue and a tasteful smattering of acrobatics. Two familiar faces from “White Album” were ringmaster Noah Mickens, who played Scrooge, and ingenue contortionist Meg Russell, who portrayed a (miraculously recovering to say the least) Tiny Tim. But by trotting out an otherwise all-new cast of multidisciplinary stars, Wanderlust proved so versatile and prolific that just chronicling their efforts was unwieldy.

As soon as jazz band 3Leg Torso shambled onto the stage in chimney sweep costumes, jawing at each “ovver” in cockney accents, we got a clue that this show would weave acting in with its musical offerings. A later appearance by accordionist Eric Stern as the Ghost of Hanukkah Present further cemented this, as he shuffled and shrugged around mumbling, “Oy, gevalt!” at Scrooge’s bad attitude. While the show tasked its musicians with acting, it also asked a handful of acrobats and swing dancers to sing. In the most extreme example, Terra Zarra as the Ghost of Christmas Past performed a head-spinning aerial routine on a hoop while singing “Carol of the Bells.” Vocally, it was already a feat of respiration and range, and acrobatically, it was a showcase of supreme grace and might. Altogether, in a sparkling ice-white leotard and skeletal makeup, she was pretty unreal. Swing dance luminary Russell Brunner even held up his half of “Baby It’s Cold Outside”—adequately, while, like a good dance partner, he let his lady shine. Bob Cratchit (played by juggler/balancer Charlie Brown) was notably near-silent and barely in character—kind of a shame since his off-kilter verbal wit was an obvious strength in a past appearance at Miz Kitty’s Parlour. Some story-suitable explanation for his props, from his stackable blocks to his sword, would have been helpful. Singer Scot Crandall as Marley did no tricks—except for singing “O Holy Night,” divinely.

Classic carols got plenty of reinterpretation: Mickens re-framed “Silver Bells” as an old man’s rant about the noise level of merriment (a la the Grinch). 3Leg reset “Joy To The World” as a Copland-esque composition with wild-west wide-open fifths, translated “Carol of the Bells” into a polyrhythmic world-beat jam, and mutated “Let it Snow” into a mournful minor polka. As the Spirit of Christmas Yet To Come swung eerily from purple silks, the band used squeaks, rattles and resonating frequencies to create a first-rate horror-show soundscape. 3Leg’s versatility was nothing short of awe-inspiring. Even ghostly acrobats couldn’t upstage them.

The script found its humor in re-framing the Dickensian events into more modern terms: Do-gooders who canvased Scrooge’s counting house were “gentlemen on bicycles” (read: Mormons) the Cratchits (celebrating Hanukkah in this version) were strapped with their daughter’s student loans and payments on their Prius, Young Scrooge was too busy working on his MBA to properly court Belle. Scrooge defended his “humbug” attitude with a wry comment that his “friends at Coca Cola invented Santa Claus to go with their bottle.”

Performances that defy categorization are too often doomed to underrepresentation in the press. After all, it’s harder to declare “a fine representation of a form” when shows combine too many disciplines to parse. But in case you hadn’t heard, the huge collective of artists under the umbrella of Wanderlust Circus are generally working their multitalented asses off, full of surprises, and better than I (or probably you) could imagine. And even though the holiday shows have wrapped…it doesn’t show signs of stopping.

More Portland “Christmas Carol” Reviews: Portland Playhouse | Post5 Theater | Twist Your Dickens

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A. L. Adams also writes the monthly column Art Walkin’  for  The Portland Mercury, and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly Magazine. Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch | The Portland Mercury
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