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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘A Christmas Carol, The Musical’ thrives again in De Pere

Critic At Large

Birder Players

Basic setup for Birder Players’ “A Christmas Carol, The Musical.” (Warren Gerds)

DE PERE, Wis. (WFRV) – “God bless us everyone!” famously ends Charles Dickens’ classic story, “A Christmas Carol.” That line is given added duty in the clever “A Christmas Carol, The Musical.” The line keeps popping up with assorted meanings and forms a structure for the musical. Most powerfully, “God bless us, everyone” is sung by a little girl to money-grubbing Ebenezer Scrooge as the casket holding the girl’s mother is carried to burial. Scrooge has turned down the girl’s father’s appeal for a loan forgiveness in his and his daughter’s time of deep need. This scene – not in the book – underlines how truly heartless Scrooge has become. In ways, the musical improves on Dickens.

Birder Players is offering “A Christmas Carol, The Musical” in seven more performances to Dec. 18 in the company’s Broadway Theatre. It’s a vibrant production by the hybrid entity – part performance studio players and part community players.

The show has been around for more than 30 years, but it’s not done much on the local scene. Why? It’s so big and tricky.

The cast/character list is longer than your arm. While Broadway Theatre is larger than a postage stamp, the backstage logistics for this production are extremely coordinated to move all the bodies in and out in close quarters.

On stage, there is vivid action. Notably, Chad Lemerande paints a portrait of Scrooge with bold, sure brushstrokes. Lemerande has impressed with a number of big leading-male roles, and here is another one he accomplishes. His Scrooge is well-studied and well-sung. Lemerande’s performance is the backbone of the production – the labor of his getting into and out of Scrooge’s nightclothes notwithstanding. ALSO, Lemerande is the show’s music director – with a lot of singing to account for because much dialogue is sung.

The musical starts out lightly as London street scenes of the 1830s are played out. And then the thing lights on fire. After eating a Christmas Eve bowl of gruel in his quarters, Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his partner, Jacob Marley. Keith Pratt climbs into the role that’s creepy and scarifying. Scrooge quakes at this figure, arriving in a large burst of stage fog, in a bad-hair-day bald-pate headpiece, decay-like make-up and “rotting” clothing, complete with hoarded coins and chain links of misdeed Marley gathered in life. The scene blossoms into a rush of creepiness for the quaking Scrooge.

There are other big scenes, with two of special note:

One. “Fezziwig’s Annual Christmas Ball” is a production number, with the ensemble stirring up festive song and dance spread out all over the wide, wide stage.

Two. “Abundance and Charity” finds four wooden soldier-like figures tap dancing a hail storm of catchy rhythms.

The direction by Alicia Birder has a can-do feel to it. Need experienced players as leads? – can do. Need a bunch of practiced youth players to fill a variety of roles? Can do. Ask everybody to reach a bit? Can do. Bring new players in to take on various roles from year to year? Can do.

The scenes with Scrooge’s three visiting ghosts all have oomph, and each is haunting in its own way. Each adds elements to the tale and Scrooge’s character. The basics still are there, but different.

This and that:

+ The eyes of Chad Lemerande tell so much in all phases of Scrooge. They are expressive without saying a word.

+ Ann Lissa Bakken brings an all-knowing aura to the Ghost of Christmas Past in singing and how she controls Scrooge.

+ Keith Pratt has fun as the nasty Marley.

+ Jesse Robak brings large gusto to the Ghost of Christmas Present with a big voice and a flair for tap dancing amid a flurry of feet of imagined characters.

+ Among her roles, Beth Remmers-Jensen offers dark, lurking touches as the Ghost of Christmas Future.

+ Various “extras” spark assorted scenes, such as the wholesale burst of energy in Mr. Fezziwig’s party, Scrooge being wrapped in gauze and lifted above murky figures in the graveyard scene and the choir of girl angels toward the end.

+ “A Christmas Carol” is like other great classics (William Shakespeare plays come to mind) that are interpreted from all kinds of directions. This musical softens some parts of the story but also digs into the darkness of Scrooge. The musical theater element in ways fleshes out the story. It’s good stuff, and this is an enlivening production.

+ Costume changes are a feat – so many, and so many done quickly. The prize goes to Ana Lissa Bakken, who one moment leaves the stage as the Ghost of Christmas present in a flowing gown and in a few blinks is back on stage in a snappy uniform of a Dancing Soldier, wearing tap shoes to boot.

+ Suddenly, there appears a choir of little Angels – 14 of them, all dressed in white and looking and sounding cute/angelic.

+ The concept of home is crucial in this show. Like the line, “God bless us everyone,” home is a recurring theme. Dorothy Gale was right, there is no place like it. But that’s a different story.

NOTE: All the above with a few exceptions is a repeat of my reviews from the 2017, 2018 and 2019 productions by the Birder Players. However, much has changed from year to year, notably cast members. This is the same show, yes, but it is not the same production. Movies don’t change; play productions do. In ways, this production is a start-over for Alicia Birder and her creative crew – the cast changes requiring adaptations throughout the show. What’s interesting is how the varied casts really get into doing this story/show from year to year. And this year’s production has an added flavor – that of a return to live performance missed in the 2020 shutdown because of COVID-19. The great story with the added colors of song and dance is delivered with real, live warmth and desire.

***

Remaining performances: 7 p.m. Dec. 10; 2 p.m. Dec. 12; 7 p.m. Dec. 14-17; 2 p.m. Dec. 18

Info: birderonbroadway.org

Note: Masks are optional for audience members.

Creative: Based on Charles Dickens’ story: Music – Alan Menken; lyrics – Lynn Ahrens; book – Mike Ockrent and Lynn Ahrens; director, choreographer – Alicia Birder; music director – Chad Lemerande; lighting design – Andrew Schmitz; sound design – Chris Gabyrczak; sound engineer –Chloe Ledvina; stage manager – Jenna Peterson; assistant stage manager – Rachel Hollenbeck; choreographer (“Link by Link,” “Fezziwig’s Annual Christmas Ball”) – Anna Allen; choreographer (“Abundance and Charity,” “Dancing on Your Grave”) – Ann Preiss Gray; set design – Warren Elliott; prop design – Ann Preiss Gray, Jon Jensen, Beth Remmers Jennings, Ritter Leeph; hair/make-up design – Lois Gegare; set build – Warren Elliott, Jack Rhyner, Bill Sands, Mike Gegare, Jim Sanders, Warren Schultz; scenic artist – Susan Elliott; scenic painter – Ritter Leeph; wardrobe coordinator – Jolee Jackson

Cast (in order of appearance):

Carolers – McKenzi Alosi, Jacking Cummings, Lilly Ellingson, Olivia Ellington, Susan Elliott, Addison Fenlon, Isaac Helstad, Isabella Helstad, Jolee Jackson, Noah Jackson, Caiya Klish, Ritter Leeph, Debora Lynn, London McKenzie, Caitlin Mellberg, Bella Murray, Megan Navarrette, Addie Peterson, Lauren Powell, Rachel Powell, Madeline Schneider, Betsy Sorensen, Julie Strobel, Mikaela Torbenson, Eloise Van Handel, Ajure Van Laanen, Elizabeth Werner

Charity Men – Bucky Marklein, Brian Murray, Noah Tetzner

Beadle – Keith Pratt

Business Men – Sam Hornseth, Lindsey Lyerly

Old Joe – Keith Pratt

Scrooge – Chad Lemerande

Mr. Bob Cratchit – Brandon Rockstroh

Mr. Smythe – Warren Elliott

Grace Smythe – Isabella Helstad/Lauren Powell

Mrs. Cratchit – Megan Navarrette

Tiny Tim – Charlie Popkey

Jonathon – Isaac Helstad

Fred Anderson (Scrooge’s nephew) – Bucky Marklein

Ghost of Christmas Present (Sandwichboard Man) – Jesse Robak

Ghost of Christmas Past (Lamplighter) – Ana Lissa Bakken

Ghost of Christmas Future (Blind Hag) – Beth Remmers-Jensen

Fish Monger – Ritter Leeph

Poulterer – Betsy Sorrensen

Poulterer’s Daughter – Elizabeth Werner

Baker – Ashley Skoczynski

Baker’s Daughter – London McKenzie

Nicole – Caiya Klish

Pantomime Girl – Caitlin Mellberg

Pantomime Kids – Jackie Cummings, Addison Fenlon, Bella Murray, Rachel Powell

Mrs. Mops (housekeeper) – Susan Elliott

Ann Cratchit – Avaya Rockstroh

Belinda Cratchit – Eloise Van Handel

Peter Cratchit – Noah Jackson

Lucy Cratchit – Olivia Ellington

Martha Cratchit – Lilly Ellingson

Mary Cratchit – Addie Peterson

Undertakers – Isaac Helstad, Sam Hornseth, Lindsey Lyerly

Ghost of Marley – Keith Pratt

Head Ghost – Julie Strobel

Chest Ghost – Ritter Leeph

Safe Ghost – Mikaela Torbenson

Skeleton Ghost – Beth Remmers Jensen

Judge – Warren Elliott

Scrooge at 8 years – Noah Jackson

Scrooge’s Father – Bucky Marklein

Scrooge’s Mother – Betsy Sorensen

Jailer – Brandon Rockstroh

Mr. Hawkins – Jesse Robak

Scrooge at 12 Years – Isaac Helstad

Fan – Jackie Cummings

Factory Workers – Addison Fenlon, Sam Hornseth, Elizabeth Werner

Young Ebenezer – Noah Tetzner

Young Marley – Brian Murray

Emily – Mikaela Torbenson

Mrs. Fezziwig – Susan Elliott

Mr. Fezziwig – Warren Elliott

Granny Pickwick – Debora Lynn

Granny Chuzzlewit – Julie Strobel

Fezziwig Guests – McKenzie Alosi, Isaac Helstad, Sam Hornseth, Jolee Jackson, Ritter Leeph, Lindsey Lyerly, London McKenzie, Bucky Marklein, Brian Murray, Megan Navarrette, Beth Remmers-Jensen, Madeline Schneider, Ashley Skoczynski, Betsy Sorensen, Ajure Van Laanen, Elizabeth Werner

Creditors – McKenzie Alosi, Sam Hornseth, Jolee Jackson, Lindsey Lyerly, Bucky Marklein, Megan Navarrette, Keith Pratt, Madeline Schneider, Betsy Sorensen, Ajure Van Laanen, Elizabeth Van Handel

Elves – Isabella Helstad, Addie Peterson, Lauren Powell, Rachel Powell, Eloise Van Handel

Dancing Soldiers – Ana Lissa Bakken, Ritter Jackson, London McKenzie, Mikaela Torbenson

Fred’s Daughter – Rachel Powell

Sally Anderson (Scrooge’s Niece) – Ashley Skoczynski

Guests of Anderson Family – Brian Murray, Betsy Sorensen, Ajure Van Laanen

Cooks – McKenzie Alosi, Addison Fenlon, Deborah Lynn, Madeline Schneider

Drunks – Sam Hornseth, Lindsey Lyerly, Keith Pratt, Noah Tetzner

Salvation Army – Ritter Leeph

Townspeople – McKenzie Alosi, Jackie Cummings, Addison Fenlon, Isaac Helstad, Jolee Jackson, Debora Lynn, Caitlin Mellberg, Bella Murray, Rachel Powell, Madeline Schneider, Ashley Skoczynski, Ajure Van Laanen, Elizabeth Werner

Child of Want – Rachel Powell

Child of Ignorance – Noah Jackson

Gravediggers – McKenzie Alosi, Ritter Leeph, London McKenzie, Betsy Sorenson

Monks – Warren Elliott, Bucky Marklein, Brian Murray, Jesse Robak, Noah Tetzner, Mikaela Torbenson

Angels – Jackie Cummings, Lilly Ellingson, Olivia Ellington, Addison Fenlon, Isabella Helstad, Noah Jackson, Caiya Klish, Caitlin Mellberg, Bella Murray, Addie Peterson, Lauren Powell, Rachel Powell, Avaya Rockstroh, Eloise Van Handel

***

Musical numbers (recorded and live; no intermission)

Overture

“Hear the Bells” – Ensemble

“Jolly Good Time” – Charity Men, Business Men, Ensemble

“Charity Men” – Charity Men, Scrooge

“Nothing to Do with Me” – Scrooge, Mr. Cratchit, Mr. Smythe, Grace Smythe, Ensemble

“Scrooge’s House” – Mrs. Mops, Scrooge

“Link by Link” – Ghost of Jacob Marley, Skeleton, Chest Ghost, Head Ghost, Safe Ghost

“The Lights of Long Ago” – Ghost of Christmas Past, Scrooge

“Old Bailey” – Jailer, Judge, Scrooge’s Mother, Scrooge’s Father, Fan, Scrooge at 8

“The Lights of Long Ago” (Part 2) – Ghost of Christmas Past, Scrooge

“The Factory”/“A Place Called Home” (Part 1) – Ghost of Christmas Past, Scrooge at 12, Fan, Factory Workers

“Mr. Fezziwig’s Annual Christmas Ball” – Ghost of Christmas Past, Scrooge, Mr. Fezziwig, Mrs. Fezziwig, Ensemble

“A Place Called Home” – Emily, Young Ebenezer, Scrooge, Ghost of Christmas Past

“Money Machine Montage” – Young Marley, Ghost of Marley, Scrooge, Ghost of Christmas Past, Young Ebenezer, Creditors

“Abundance and Charity” – Ghost of Christmas Present, Dancing Soldiers, Scrooge

“Christmas Together” – Scrooge, Cratchit Family, Ensemble

“Will Tiny Tim Live?” – Scrooge

“Dancing on Your Grave” – Ghost of Christmas Future, Scrooge, Monks, Gravediggers, Undertakers, Mrs. Mops, Old Joe, Cratchit Family

“Yesterday, Tomorrow and Today” – Scrooge, Ghost of Christmas Future

“Finale” – Scrooge, Cratchit Family, Anderson Family, Jonathan, Business Men, Mrs. Mops, Ensemble

“God Bless Us Everyone” – Company

***

NEXT: “The Drowsy Chaperone” musical, Feb. 18-20, 23, 25-27, March 3-5, 2022.

THE VENUE: Broadway Theatre is a 154-seat, 3,000-square-foot facility at 123 S. Broadway on the east side of the Fox River in De Pere. The building started life as the Majestic Theatre sometime around 1930, and a certain aura of that time remains. The space is essentially a “black box” performance space that is adjusted to the needs of a specific production. The rectangular space includes a high, arcing ceiling consisting primarily of its original patterned tin, painted white, and a laminate dark brown floor. The stage is set on a long leg of the space, with movable seating for 140 on three sides. The stage has an angled front with three steps to the top surface. For “A Christmas Carol, The Musical,” the stage is painted as if being bricks of a London street of yore. Performances spill along the various levels onto the main level of the seating area. Action often is up close and personal. The theater is the home for performances and rehearsals of the youth Birder Studio of Performing Arts and adult Birder Players, and it is another option for other endeavors of entertainment.

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