Seeing George Bailey and Ebenezer Scrooge through new eyes, and ears, in Greater Morristown

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol​. From left: Quentin McCuiston, Ames Adamson as Ebenezer Scrooge, and Emma O’Donnell. Photo by Joe Guerin.
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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.

Marcia Finn as Mary and Duane Noch as George in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ radio play at the Morristown & Township Library, Dec. 6, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

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.

The Classic Radio Road Show presented a live radio re-creation of It’s A Wonderful Life at the Morristown & Township Library on Friday.

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.

Laurie Noch shows off tools of the Foley Artist trade, after ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ radio play at the Morristown & Township Library, Dec. 6, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

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.

Patrons watch ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ radio play at the Morristown & Township Library, Dec. 6, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

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.

‘THEY LIKE ME! THEY REALLY LIKE ME!’ Library Assistant Director Mary Lynn Becza at her radio stage debut, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ radio play at the Morristown & Township Library, Dec. 6, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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.

‘Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.’ Foreground from left: Ames Adamson as Scrooge, Emma O’Donnell, and Clark Scott Carmichael as Bob Cratchit. Photo by Joe Guerin.

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.

SPOILER ALERT!

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!”

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol​. Alison Weller as Portly Gentlewoman and Raphael Nash Thompson as Portly Gentleman. Photo by Joe Guerin.

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.

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1 COMMENT

  1. It’s a Wonderful Life is only a little over 2 hours, if you feel like it lasts more like three then maybe you ARE a Scrooge. Further if you have such a problem with stories of redemption and renewed faith, perhaps you SHOULD jump into an icy river.

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