Each year in December, the Bay Area is awash with annual holiday productions that have often been running for decades: The Christmas Carol (American Conservatory Theatre), The Nutcracker (San Francisco Ballet); Home for the Holidays (The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus); Kung Pao Kosher Comedy; The Golden Girls Live: The Christmas Episodes, to name a few. After its 2015 world premiere and 2016 encore, 42nd Street Moon brings back a glistening Scrooge in Love that could easily in the coming years join this eclectic group of annual, holiday traditions – especially as long as the charmingly spy and spirited Jason Graae continues returning in the role of Ebenezer Scrooge.
Unlike in movies where sequels to big hits multiply more than rabbits, we rarely get to see on the stage the after-story (Sondheim’s In the Woods a famous exception). 42nd Street Moon’s bid for an annual, December staging revisits one of the most infamous holiday characters of all time, Ebenezer Scrooge. With music by award-winning composer Larry Grossman (Minnie’s Boys, Goodtime Charley), lyrics by Drama Desk-nominated Kellen Blair (Murder for Two), and book by Outer Critics’ Circle nominee Duane Poole (A Christmas Memory), the Moon revives for a third outing its Scrooge in Love – a feast of hummable tunes, clever lyrics, and a story both funny and heart-warming, all once again coming to 1844 London life by a talented cast and a top-notch production team, resulting in a production better than ever.
As holiday wassailers sing on the street the rousing “Carol: Just Like a Person in Love,” Ebenezer Scrooge in night cap and gown settles into his Christmas Eve bed, only to be abruptly aroused by his dead, but still ghost-in-chains friend, Jacob Marley. The gray-lipped, ashen-faced Marley has reappeared one year after his first famous, haunting visit to ask one question of Scrooge, “Are you happy?” Scrooge, a bit annoyed (“So is this to be annual holiday chat?”) soon discovers that in fact he is about to time travel yet again this Christmas Eve to his past, present, and future – this time not to scare him into generosity but instead to entice him out of loneliness and into love.
On and Off Broadway veteran (A Grand Night for Singing, Falsettos, Forever Plaid, etc.) and 42nd Street Moon favorite (Little Me, Scrooge in Love) Jason Graae steps once again into Scrooge’s floppy socks and floppier night gown, dons his bifocals, and fills the giant role with his spry, diminutive frame with gleeful gusto and grace. When singing, he sparkles in songs like “In Just One Year” and “Happier,” where he does all he can to convince both the spirits and himself that his constant smiling, skipping, and sashaying does in fact mean he is much happier than twelve months prior. He also tugs at hearts and creates a mood of reflection that leads even to audience self-examinations in songs like “The Things You Should Have Done,” where he relooks at his life and the choices made and not made at critical turning-point moments. With a fine singing voice and English diction, a face that transforms in dozens of caricatured and nuanced ways, and light-on-his-feet moves made whether dancing or ‘flying’ through time, Mr. Graae creates a cart-wheeling Scrooge that surely exceeds audience members’ expectations – based on the grouchy, grumpy curmudgeon they have known in the past.
Deliciously impressive too is Edward Hightower as the chain-rattling specter, Jacob Marley, devoted even in his wandering after-life to the well-being of his earthly friend, Scrooge. Singing with purposeful pauses to let his message sink in, Marley warns Scrooge, “There are hours in between, between every ‘Good Evening’ and ‘Good Day’ …where there is no cause to raise a glass … only time that needs to pass.” Utilizing wonderfully exaggerated facial expressions galore and vocals that vibrate and howl as only a ghost can, Mr. Hightower provides both wonderful moments of comedy and of caring as he prods Scrooge toward a renewed relationship with a long-lost love.
Helping Marley in his task are three other ghosts, quite familiar to Scrooge and to us. The Ghost of Christmas Past arrives this time all giggles as a bubbly blonde in a pink corset-like mixture of buttons and bows, singing in mocked opera aria style, “I Love Love.” Andrea Dennison-Laufer is delightfully clownish as the hyper but well-intentioned spirit who takes Ebenezer to a typical day of his past when his younger self meets, falls in love, and then lets get away his first-and-only love, Belle. Matt Skinner is the awkward, fumbling Young Scrooge as he attempts to dance for the first time with puppy-love eyes, only to freeze in silent, pained regret as he is losing his Belle to a rival. Together with Belle (Jenny Veilleux), the two duet in the lovely “You’re Safe with Me,” a number later to be ably reprised by the much-older Scrooge and Belle.
In a candle-rich hat of green wreath and a fur-bedecked green royal robe, Will Springhorn, Jr. once again brings a glittering beard, tinkling bells, bombastic laughter, and a rich baritone voice to reprise his near-show-stopping role as Ghost of Christmas Present, admonishing Scrooge, “Do It Now.” Without uttering a word or ever showing his face behind an ominous hooded robe of black from where bony, black fingers bare themselves, Matt Hammons nevertheless finds many avenues to bring humor, fear, and even empathy to his towering Ghost of Christmas Future. Taking Scrooge to his future graveside where a grieving Belle hovers, this Ghost looks on with darkened amusement behind his shroud as Ebenezer dances up a winter storm, singing, “Who knew by dying, I’d feel so alive?” (part of the witty lyrics of “Sad I’m Dead”).
Of course, the Cratchit family appears in the story (including the adorable pipsqueak with big personality and huge stage presence, Dresden Davis, as the now-walking Tiny Tim) along with several other friends of Scrooge, both past and present – all singing and dancing along the way under the astute direction of Music Director Ken Brill and returning Choreographer Staci Arriaga. Plush period dresses, hats, shoes, and shawls along with the amusing and eye-catching outfitting of the Ghosts are the result of Rebecca Valentino’s creativity, with the 2019 versions better than ever from her earlier designs. Mark Mendelson’s set design is no less than award worthy with is rich wood interiors, bricked exteriors, windows paned, and doors wreathed – all bringing the nineteenth-century London neighborhood to holiday life. Both the foggy mystery and the snowy brightness of day as well as the ghostly shudders of night are beautifully painted by Lighting Designer Michael Palumbo. Everything is kept moving with aplomb by Director Dyan McBride (who also bestowed creative vision to the 2015 premiere), her once again making particularly good use of background scene freezes to add to the fun of it all.
As played so masterfully by Ken Brill on piano, Joshua Mikus-Mahoney on cello, and Marja Mutru on keyboard, Larry Grossman’s perky, toe-tapping score is the icing on the cake of this holiday gift to us all, Scrooge in Love. There is no way smiles can be avoided throughout this well-written, well-executed revival by 42nd Street Moon and its to-the-person outstanding cast of twenty-four. And there is no way anyone should hesitate kicking off the holiday season with this uplifting update to a well-loved Christmas tale and perhaps making it one more, Bay Area, annual tradition of our San Francisco December.
Rating: 5 E
Scrooge in Love continues through December 22, 2019 in production by 42nd Street Moon at the Gateway Theatre, 215 Jackson Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available at http://www.42ndstmoon.org or by calling the box office at 415-255-8207.
Photos by Ben Krantz Studio