Remember the first time you saw It’s a Wonderful Life? Or A Christmas Carol?
Maybe not. As the holidays accrete like blinking barnacles on an aluminum tree, one might be forgiven for avoiding these Yuletide warhorses.
Sitting through another three hours of Wonderful Life — colorized or not — waiting for Clarence to get his wings could give even the jolliest old elf a severe case of the Bah Humbugs!
And if one more cranky ghost pays a visit, from the past, present, future or some quantum entanglement, well, Clarence may need to rescue me from the icy river.
Or so I thought before this past weekend in Greater Morristown.
Like breaths of fresh air from Bedford Falls and London town, a pair of productions hit the reset buttons for these all-too-familiar tales.
Saturday was opening night for Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Madison.
Very different. Very satisfying.
Based in Middletown, the Classic Radio Road Show has been recreating plays from radio’s golden age for about three years.
Leading this nimble ensemble is Duane Noch (George Bailey), who builds scenery at the Two River Theater in Red Bank. His acting credits include a Law & Order episode and commercials. He also fashions ingenious sound effects for the Road Show’s Foley Artist, his wife Laurie.
By day, she’s a school psychologist. But when the big, boxy “ON AIR” sign flashes to life, Laurie becomes an old-fashioned radio star. Audience members are instructed to close their eyes, as cast members jostle for microphones and assume multiple roles.
“Movies now are all about special effects,” Laurie explained. “At some point, it’s like, ‘What’s the story?’ My husband wanted to focus on the story.”
Guess what. Trimmed to an hour, with your eyes shut tight and your ears open wide, It’s A Wonderful Life is fresh and lovely–which is how you’ll look after using Lux Soap.
Yes, even commercials are fun with this troupe. Wayne Emley? Deliciously loathsome as the snarling Mr. Potter. Marcia Finn shrieked like a pro as Mary, the housewife-turned-library spinster accosted by her never-born husband, George Bailey.
Brian Hotaling ping-ponged with convincing cluelessness between the feckless Uncle Billy and Clarence, the grounded guardian angel.
Elaine Steelman was the team’s utility infielder, and library Assistant Director Mary Lynn Becza, its star pinch-hitter. She played Mary’s mother, Mrs. Hatch, with a certain je ne sais quoi.
Free entertainment does not get much better than this.
CRYING FOWL, BEATING BARBARIANS
The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey is not free. But the opening night crowd got its money’s worth from a clever Carol, which runs through Dec. 29, 2019.
You’ll need your eyes for this swirling collage of mirth and mayhem. It’s the third time the STNJ has staged Neil Bartlett’s adaptation of Dickens’ classic 1843 story. What’s marvelous is the arc, from hold-your-sides funny to the stuff of nightmares.
Nothing feels clichéd; I found myself delighted by lines everyone in the theater knew were coming.
Scrooge’s cruelty stands out all the more against the comic interplay of his office help, a poker-faced crew brimming with syncopated one-liners.
The lead belongs to Ames Adamson, a veteran of 17 seasons with the Madison company. He revels in his character’s rottenness — Mr. Hyde with a funny bone.
The monstrous ghosts are worthy of an outfit that serves up “Double, double toil and trouble” on a regular basis. And Director Brian B. Crowe, in his 24th season, is just the fellow to deliver the stark contrasts at the heart of this Christmas catharsis; his resume includes the madcap William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play and the have-your-cousin-and-eat-him-too savagery of Titus Andronicus.
Raphael Nash Thompson and Alison Weller are the kind of Fezziwigs we’d all love to work for. The versatile Clark Scott Carmichael wears Bob Cratchit’s burdens well.
Carmichael figures prominently in the most hilarious scene I have seen at the Shakespeare Theatre. Cooked up by Artistic Director Bonnie Monte, this brilliant bit of business late in the second act will have Dickens purists crying “Fowl!”
Hey, if they don’t like it, they can, ahem, stuff it. Even if this show were a turkey, I would urge you to see it, just for this moment.
Finally, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is impressive because its backstory mirrors the one onstage. This production has triumphed over real-world barbarism.
On the eve of previews, a cyber-extortionist wiped out the theater’s ticketing system and patron database.
One preview was canceled. But the show has gone on. Monte said the public response has been overwhelming.
“Everybody has been incredibly thoughtful and patient and generous and kind,” she told the opening night audience. “It absolutely exemplifies the spirit of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.”
In fact, Monte said, it was wonderful.
Frank Capra himself couldn’t have said it any better.
The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey presents Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, adapted by Neil Bartlett, directed by Brian B. Crowe, performances through Dec. 29, 2019. Tickets start at $59. At Drew University, 36 Madison Ave., Madison, 973-408-5600.