There are a lot of good things going on in the Forum Theatre’s fourth annual outing of its original “Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol: A Spirited New Musical,” which was commissioned in 2011 to become a local holiday tradition.
Shaun-Michael Morse, a Wichita native who honed his stagecraft in a dozen years of performing in San Francisco, is back for the second time as Scrooge, the curmudgeonly but redeemable heart of the familiar tale. Morse has the knack to growl out “Bah, humbug” as credible living speech (like George C. Scott in TV’s 1984 classic) rather than as just an archaic and somewhat silly exclamation to modern ears.
And Morse acts with his whole body, whose posture loosens up and straightens as his withered soul revives. He eventually bustles about the stage in a long frock coat, looking almost as if he’s floating. He’s literally click-your-heels giddy by Christmas morning.
Broadway veteran Karla Burns, with her rich and resonant mezzo-soprano, is back for the fourth time as the jovial Ghost of Christmas Present, and Cary Hesse, a longtime local favorite, is also back for a fourth time as the elegant, lyrical and ethereal Ghost of Christmas Past.
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Dressed in rich red robes trimmed in white fur, Burns could be mistaken for Mrs. Santa Claus, while Hesse, in a sparkly, frosty silver-and-white gown with a long train, makes a beautiful Snow Queen (more old school than “Frozen”).
But that said, there’s no getting away from the fact that opening night Thursday was a technical disaster when both sound and lighting systems failed during the performance. About half the cast lost use of their body microphones and could barely be heard, overshadowed by those whose microphones still worked. When the lighting went, performers were left in shadows or silhouette while the crew scrambled to find spotlights to at least keep them visible.
Both problems, as serious as they were, were only temporary setbacks that were expected to be corrected for the rest of the run. It’s a show that has proved to be endearing and enduring.
And in its new home in the landmark 19th-century Scottish Rite Center, “Christmas Carol” got a subtly mood-enhancing, Victorian architectural setting with ornate gold-and-ivory plasterwork, a wealth of stained glass and brilliant crystal chandeliers.
One thing that came through unscathed was the beautiful music composed by Paul Jackson and performed at the piano by music director Tim Raymond, supported by strings and flute. Jackson’s music is a complex but thoroughly listenable earful reminiscent of Stephen Sondheim with its thrilling cascades of keyboard runs, its jaunty music hall riffs and a few ghostly violin shrieks to raise goosebumps in some of Scrooge’s darker moments.
Raymond also arranged and performed the spritely and thrilling “Festival of Carols from the Old Country” as a mood-setting overture made up of numerous carols, from “Deck the Halls” to “The First Noel” to “Joy to the World.”
The dramatic adaptation by Conrad Jestmore pares down Dickens’ classic to a sleek 90 minutes of linked vignettes that give the right amount of original substance and language without belaboring all-too-familiar moments. Performed without an intermission, it preserves the escalating flow of Scrooge’s redemption as (like the Grinch) his heart seems to grow three sizes by the end of the show.
Despite sound problems opening night, there were some vocal highlights. Chelsey Moore made a poignantly lovely Belle, the love young Scrooge lost when he concentrated on his career and neglected his heart. Cameron Carlson did a nice turn as Scrooge’s overworked but ever-optimistic clerk Bob Cratchit, and Megan Parsley provided sturdy, loving support as Cratchit’s wife.
But the highlight was the rousing and broadly comic “The Last Thing (I’d Want to Be Is a Miser Like Him),” performed with gleeful snideness by Ted Woodward as Joe the Ragpicker, backed by charwomen Erin Mundus, Megan Parsley and Keely Connolly. In a show laden with heavy, emotional themes, this dares to be a delightful bit of outrageous fun.
If You Go
‘Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol: A Spirited New Musical’
Where: Scottish Rite Center, 332 E. First St.
Additional performances: Through Dec. 20 at 8 p.m. Thursday-Friday and 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; one Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. on Dec. 14
Tickets: $23 Thursday night and matinees, $25 Friday-Saturday evenings. Catered Christmas dinner available before show for $15 extra. Call 316-618-0444 or www.forumwichita.com.