Sunday, December 7, 2003

Playhouse true to Dickens

Production of 'A Christmas Carol' brings story into audience's heart

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Joneal Joplin's portrayal of Scrooge in Playhouse in the Park's A Christmas Carol has become a Cincinnati holiday tradition.
(Brandi Stafford photo)
There's never been any question that Playhouse in the Park's rendition of A Christmas Carol is a great holiday show. What doesn't get said enough is that it's also a great production, always one of the Top 10 pieces of theater produced here every year.

I can't imagine a holiday season that doesn't include Carol. It's as much about the way the Playhouse presents it as it is about Charles Dickens' timeless tale of Ebenezer Scrooge.

In case you've forgotten, Scrooge reclaimed his soul one long ago Christmas Eve, thanks to a ghost and three Christmas spirits who take coldhearted old Ebenezer (again the impeccable Joneal Joplin) on visits to his past, the present and what scarily may be to come.

Carol has a message so pure and necessary - kindness, forgiveness, comfort and joy, open-heartedness - that it's a holiday tradition across the United States. (Four versions are being produced in Cincinnati alone.)

But Playhouse's Carol is a spellbinder.

It is 1830, a cold, bleak Christmas Eve in Londontown where fingers of fog seem to creep under the doorway and windows into Scrooge's counting house.

We meet Scrooge's abused and underpaid but sweet-natured clerk Bob Cratchit (Bruce Cromer, a superlative Cratchit for years).

Then we're off on a rousing ghost story that takes Scrooge to his lonely and unhappy boyhood, to revisit his ruinous (if understandable) choices as a young man. Through it all, he says "I can't change." Dickens' message is that Ebenezer can change. So can we all.

Hooray again for Howard Dallin's just-right adaptation, that speeds along with its heart intact. It has us gasping and giggling (and teary-eyed) in all the right places.

Hooray, too, for James Leonard Joy's remarkable set that looks like a Victorian street set under the tree. The only thing missing is the surround of cotton "snow." But this one's human sized and motorized so that its buildings move and trapdoors open and close, keeping the action moving at a gallop.

Joplin and Cromer have wonderfully anchored Carol since 1997. Another great joy of this production is to see some marvelous performances from local actors.

Every year I look forward to seeing Greg Procaccino in his dual roles of Marley's Ghost and the delectably horrid ragpicker Old Joe; he never disappoints.

Carol is filled with talented veterans - Dale Hodges, Mark Mineart, Amy Warner, Regina Pugh - and new cast members including Angela Lin and Rashaad Green, coming together under the beautiful direction of Michael Haney, who makes it all funny, scary and heartfelt.

A Christmas Carol, through Dec. 30, Playhouse in the Park, 421-3888.


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