Composer-lyricist Paul Jackson is sort of Wichita’s answer to Stephen Sondheim (think “Sweeney Todd”) with his first full-length musical, an original new take on “Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol: A Spirited New Musical” that premiered at the Forum Theatre for Performing Arts.
Jackson, who collaborated with writer Conrad Jestmore, has created a thrilling, sometimes complex but thoroughly listenable musical. Its diverse range includes beautiful cascades of piano runs, creepy violin shrieks for ghostly moods, jaunty musical hall riffs and poignant soliloquies.
Under direction of Kathryn Page Hauptman, the show — commissioned by the Forum to become an annual holiday offering — speeds by in 90 minutes with no intermission to preserve the escalating moods. Jestmore skillfully pared down the Dickens’ classic into a series of linked vignettes that give the right amount of original substance and details without belaboring all-too-familiar moments.
It’s a sleek, efficient approach to a classic designed for the instant-communication Twitter and texting generation while preserving the richness of Dickens’ language.
Composer Jackson takes the role of Scrooge, who complains about the time-wasting joy of Christmas. He is countered by bustling carolers and shoppers with “Listen to Our Music” that incorporates traditional carols like “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.”
Jackson plays Scrooge as gruff and driven but gives the penny-pincher an underlying humanity that keeps him from becoming an irredeemable monster. He talks a mean game, but Jackson lets us see Scrooge’s vulnerabilities (notably loneliness) and his gradual change of heart so we will believe his redemption.
Jackson, a tenor soloist at University Congregational Church, has an evocative voice that conveys the dawning emotions in his soul-restoring soliloquy that “Life is all we have right now, love is all we have right now.”
Cary Hesse-Clark, dressed in shimmery, swirling white (thanks to costumer Chadwick Armstrong) is the Ghost of Christmas Past, who takes Scrooge back to the Christmases of his boyhood where he relives the joy of first love and the pain of first loss. Hesse-Clark’s powerful soprano makes her anthem, “Remember,” a highlight.
Another highlight is Kylie Jo Jennings as Belle, Scrooge’s first love, who watches him become obsessed with profit at the expense of his soul. Jennings has a lilting soprano that can break your heart when she poignantly muses about “What Matters” as she reluctantly gives up on him.
The wonderful Karla Burns, back home after two decades on Broadway and London, is the personification of holiday cheer as the Ghost of Christmas Present. She appears in a lush red robe with white fur trim and shows Scrooge what he’s missing in the homes and streets around him. Burns’ legendary alto powers up “The Blessed Present.”
Rob Summers is a truly scary — and pitiable — Marley’s Ghost with clanking chains from his eternal torment after a life of greed. Craig Green is sympathetic as Scrooge’s bullied clerk, Bob Cratchit, and 6-year-old Aidan Martin is refreshingly unstudied with a wisp of a solo as Cratchit’s ailing but optimistic son, Tiny Tim.
But the real scene stealer is Ted Woodward as Joe the ragpicker, who is joined by Briley Meek, Stephanie Dennis and Hesse-Clark in a satirical music hall romp about “The Last Thing (I’d Want to Be is a Miser Like Him).” The scene is a rollicking blast.
The music is played by a small on-stage combo under music director and pianist Tim Raymond. The substantial and versatile two-story set, which stretches the entire width of the auditorium, makes us feel like we are sitting inside the show, is by Ben Juhnke.
Tyler Lessin’s lighting is spot-on, particularly for cosy fire-lit interiors, a gloomy blue glow to Marley’s Ghost and a stark purple pall for the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Be.
And those ghosts have ethereal, other-worldly voices thanks to precise sound design by Nick Smith.
My only concern is that composer Jackson used music as background connector so effectively to maintain the dramatic flow between songs that there’s no break to applaud some deserving solos. At least, there’s the final curtain call. Bravo!