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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘A Christmas Carol’ lives on in yet another way

Green Bay area talent is pooled at the Riverside Ballroom.

GREEN BAY, Wis., (WFRV) – What Charles Dickens wrought in “A Christmas Carol” is an enduring story that’s open to a multitude of adaptations. The version (4½ stars out of 5) playing through this weekend at the Riverside Ballroom blends performers strongly or loosely connected with Daddy D Productions, Evergreen Productions and The Heritage Players. In general, these are people who like to perform.

The cast

Scrooge, Stu Smith; Marley/Fezziwig, Darren Johnson; Narrator, Bev Smith; Bob Cratchit, Lyle Becker; Mrs. Cratchit, Kathy Hardtke; Cratchit Children, Megan Schauer, Matt Doherty and Laura Schmitt; Tiny Tim, Sam Doherty; Nephew Fred, Sean Connelly; Solicitors, Maria Sausen and Nancy Jones; Christmas Past, Sandy Zochert; Christmas Present, Dave Zochert; Ignorance, Matt Doherty; Want, Megan Schauer; Christmas Future, Darren Johnson; Young Scrooge, Jarod Verboort; Fan, Keri Salscheider; Belle, Randi Fay; Old Joe, Joe Stege; Charwoman #1, Gretchen Mattingly; Char Woman #2, Debbie DeGroot; Undertaker, Bill Jones; Boy/Goose, Matt Doherty. Carolers, Myrna Dickinson, Laura Schmitt, Megan Schauer, Matt Doherty, Sam Doherty, Joe Stege, Gretchen Mattingly, Debbie DeGroot, Bill Jones, Nancy Jones, Randi Fay, Keri Salscheider, Maria Sausen, Jerod Verboort, Darren Johnson, Sandy Zochert, Sean Connelly, Lyle Becker and Kathy Hardtke.

Key credits

Producers, Darren Johnson and Stu Smith; director, Dave Zochert; music arranger, Mary Eisenreich; technical director, Dan Collins; costumer, Judy Patefield; hair and make-up designer, Lois Gregare; musicians, Mary Eisenreich, keyboard; Barb Hinnendael, keyboard; Bob Balsley, guitar; Jeff Hinnendael, percussion.

The songs

“It’s Christmas,” “In the Bleak Midwinter,” “Fum, Fum, Fum,” “I Saw Three Ships A Sailing,” “Coventry Carol,” “Billy Boy,” “Wassail, Wassail,” “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” “Barbara Allen,” “Oh Come, Little Children,” “Deck the Halls,” “Christmas is Coming,” “Joy to the World,” “What Child is This?” “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen.”

On paper, the concept is a hit. The three performances are sold out.

In performance, it is loaded with atmosphere, with plenty of satisfying singing splashed through the heartening story of redemption.

The production is a “Reader’s Digest” condensation that times in at less than an hour and a half. Some hard-core versions plummet Scrooge into deep, dark chasms that are haunting yet make his redemption all the more uplifting. The mood in this one is more up than down, fueling a spirit of community cheer.

In Green Bay, Stu Smith’s name is often associated with “A Christmas Carol.” Scores of performances over two generations will do that. And he is Green Bay’s ultimate Scrooge – particularly snarly at the start, biting, miserly, cheap, single minded ($$$$$) and worthy of being unloved and solitary. Smith continues to deliver the goods (or in this case, the bads), with his wife, Bev Smith, shaping the foundation as the Narrator.

Factoring in this version are two new elements to the Smith template, Darren Johnson’s troupe and the Riverside.

The Johnson factor means there’s a lot of good singing. Group carols and individual performances are filled with rich sounds, dressed nicely by the four-person orchestra. Warmth radiates in the Johnson-led “It’s Christmas (it’s Christmas, and it’s calling me home).” Adding aura are little touches such as Lyle Becker as Bob Cratchit singing “I Saw Three Ships A Sailing” as he goes about his business in Scrooge’s shop and a showcase for Randi Fay as Belle, Scrooge’s abandoned love, in the oh-so-sad “Barbara Allen.”

The Riverside factors in in how its ballroom space is used. Essentially, the permanent stage at one end is abandoned. For “A Christmas Carol,” a stage is set up on the west side of the ballroom, with the long bar behind it hidden by curtains. It’s not the greatest of set ups, but it is serviceable – and in the annals of the historic Riverside may be a first.

This production makes use of wireless microphones, the headsets that allow performers to move freely and be heard clearly anywhere. Add inventiveness, cleverness and a great story with jolly good singing, and you’ve got something wonderful.

HISTORICAL NOTE: “A Christmas Carol” is the origin of Evergreen Productions. Longtime director Bev Saxe gathered together like-minded individuals (kind of like the cast in this production) to do “A Christmas Carol” as an independent production. This was for joy, basically. With time, the association became more formal, and Evergreen Productions was started. Evergreen eventually absorbed Next Door Theatre for Children and today has ongoing offerings that often feature blended youth/adult casts, just as with this version of “A Christmas Carol.”      

FASCINATING COINCIDENCE: In “A Christmas Carol,” Bob Cratchit is late to work the day after Christmas by 18½ minutes. During the presidency of Richard Nixon, the infamous White House Tapes had a gap of 18½ minutes. We know why Bob Cratchit was late, but nobody has been able to pin down exactly what was going on in Nixon’s vanished 18½ minutes.

THE VENUE: The spacious Riverside Ballroom Crystal Ballroom is the heart of the 1936 Art Moderne building on Green Bay’s east side. Performances are on a raised stage on which rock ‘n’ roll legends Buddy Holly, Richie Vallens and the Big Bopper performed a famed concert. Seating is at round tables on the ballroom floor. The ballroom features high, sweeping, laminated wood beams with streamlined, curved decoration at the base of each beam. Hanging from the ceiling are Czechoslovakian crystal chandeliers. The building is on the National Register of Historic Places. Imagine the Green Bay Packers holding practice inside the ballroom. That happened a few times, according to a Packers Heritage Trail plaque outside.

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air features on WFRV at 6:45 p.m. Thursdays and every other Sunday between 6 and 8 a.m. (usually around 7:45 a.m.)

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