By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic
In case you’re keeping score – last week I combined two different shows into one review. Normally I don’t like doing that because it suggests I’m comparing one against the other … absolutely not my intention. It’s just that the shows I reviewed covered the same themes and it would’ve been odd to silo them as if they weren’t happening at the same time.
That ain’t nothin’ compared to this week.
Once again I have to capture my thoughts about two different theatrical confections in one review of because – get this! – both are brought to us from homegrown theatrical companies and both, created by local (or at least regional) talent, are about homegrown theatrical companies staging productions of Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol.
Local companies don’t get more homegrown than Little Lake Theatre, now celebrating its 71st season. Imagine, the troupe is the same age as Prince Charles! (And, with this review, I realize both are wishing some cranky old queen would just shut up and move on.)
Little Lake presents The (Christmas) Lake Effect … and there’s a backstory. 71 years ago, Will Disney started the company which, in the late 1980s, his daughter Sunny Disney Fitchett took over. She herself retired a few years ago to do some traveling and recently returned to the ‘Burgh. A writer of several children’s theater scripts, The (Christmas) Lake Effect is, I believe, her first “grown-up” show.
It’s about a theater company, very much like Little Lake Theater, rehearsing a production of A Christmas Carol.
Meanwhile, Off the Wall Productions is presenting The Carols. Or maybe I should they’re reviving, newly refashioned, a show the company first presented in 2017. (And if I may take a moment … that production featured the late and very lamented Leon Zionts, an incredible local performer, theatrical impresario and founder of Front Porch Theatricals.)
The Carols is a musical featuring book and lyrics by Philadelphia-based writer Jennifer Childs with music from Pittsburgh-based composer Monica Stephenson. The show is set in 1944 and tells the story of the Carol Sisters, three young women volunteering at a VFW hall in New Jersey staging … or trying to stage since most of the men are at the front … the annual holiday production of A Christmas Carol.
Since this production of Little Lake’s Lake Effect is a world premiere let’s dive into the always nauseating issue of new work and the hellish experience of a playwright seeing her “baby” taking first steps.
Disney Fitchett is a funny writer and, by and large, the situations in Lake Effect are played for laughs. The company within the show has, for years past, presented something called A Halibut Christmas, a fictional play set in a Southern redneck town. This year, however, the company is producing Christmas Carol … much to the annoyance of Felix, the troupe’s testy, temperamental star. Though cast in Carol, he’d really much rather be returning to his signature Halibut role.
Aficionados will know that Disney Fitchett is lampooning her own time as Artistic Director at Little Lake when the company was popularizing the Greater Tuna canon. These were a series of four plays set in a redneck town called Tuna, Texas. At one point they were some of the most produced scripts in the United States … which Little Lake certainly had a hand in. So here’s Disney Fitchett with a fictionalized version of Little Lake Theatre presenting a fictionalized version of A Tuna Christmas.
And if that isn’t already too much like an Escher drawing, Little Lake regulars will remember that one of the actors in past Tuna productions was Art DeConciliis. And guess what? He’s cast here as Felix playing Scrooge moaning that he’s not returning in Halibut.
I think my brain just fell out of my ears.
Being a debut, Lake Effect features some of the common “new work” challenges. Right now it’s sprawling; too many characters, many of whom could easily be telescoped and the situations need to be tightened up. A farce like this is funny only when it’s razor-sharp and fat-free.
There’s also comedic concepts Disney Fitchett might want to revisit. For reasons of plot, the cast ends up rehearsing with costumes from Cats. It’s an enjoyable gag at the beginning … but it also means the company needs to spend the rest of show in fur-accented unitards. It’s like Ben Carson ending up Secretary of HHS – sure it’s funny at the start, but you soon come to realize it’s not that funny.
Disney Fitchett knows her way around egotistical actors (her scars may actually be more acute than mine) and she gets a lot of laughs out of the inherent insanity of the theatrical process and the crazy people involved. But some areas need more attention. The character of Felix is relentlessly one-note – even when played by someone as entertaining as DeConciliis. He was cranky, is cranky and stays cranky until the last few moments. I realize that mirrors Scrooge’s conversion, but the lack of variation in your script’s leading character presents its own challenge.
There’s a huge cast (12 people … for a non-musical!) and Disney Fitchett provides moments for each to shine. But when all’s said and done this is a first draft; she’s given herself a great deal of potential and the subsequent backbreaking rewrites will, I think, get her closer to where she wants to be.
The (Christmas) Lake Effect continues through December 14. Little Lake Theatre, Canonsburg. 724-745-6300. www.littlelaketheatre.org
Off the Wall’s The Carols has, one assumes, been through more of the hateful rewriting process than Lake Effect. I didn’t actually catch the 2017 production so I can’t really say how different this latest iteration is … but I’m told there’ve been changes aplenty.
At the top of the show one of the sisters, Lily Carol, informs us that we’re about to see a sentimental retelling of a sentimental memory … and if we don’t like sentiment we can leave, no questions asked. I guess that since they warned me I really don’t have a right to complain.
But when did I ever let that stop me?
Childs and Stephenson have whipped up a frothy, sugary sweet refreshment with no goal other than to send you out onto the pavement with a smile plastered to your face. And judging by the charmed audience with whom I saw the production, they achieved their desired result.
But The Carols needs to be congratulated for an even bigger, if more subtle, achievement. A show like this, set during a WWII Christmas, would normally contain period music; all kinds of carols sung by all kinds of singing stars from the nostalgic past. So I commend Stephenson and Childs for taking the risk of writing their own score, rather than relying on one from days of yore.
The tunes are easy going and pleasant. I can’t say there’s any sort of big, glitzy Broadway anthem-type numbers, but it’s not that kind of show. It’s a sweet, gentle Hallmark Christmas Channel story told on its own terms.
Since much of the book (excluding the “very sentimental” ending) is about jokes and gags, Childs might want to expend more energy making the script as funny as the characters in it seem to think it is. Too many times the punch lines land with a thud … which is an uncomfortable situation for everyone involved. And like Lake Effect, the characters are written a little too broadly (there’s the “flirty” sister, the “serious” sister, the “cranky” featured role) and perhaps more nuance would provide a bigger pay-off.
Directors Erika Cuenca and Robyne Parrish move the show along at a breathless pace … and thank God for it. This slight show wouldn’t benefit from in-depth analysis.
It’s a fine cast of seasoned performers giving their all to put the material across; Moira Quigley, Mandie Russak (and the fun dancing she supplies as choreographer), Elizabeth Boyke, Beth Johnstone Bush and Marc Moritz. Quigley is our narrator and while she’s required to force a little too much cheer a little too often (and can seem like she’s in a hostage video) my date for the evening was so swept up in her first-rate dancing/singer/acting abilities he told me in no uncertain terms that she’s going to be a Star! (The exclamation points are his.)
And I’m not quite sure how someone hidden behind a piano, visible only from the hairline up, steals a show but music director and pianist Douglas Levine manages to do so.
So it’s Christmastime. You can’t outrun it, but with these two local productions, it’s possible you could enjoy it.
The Carols continues through December 14. Carnegie Stage, 724-783-3576. www.insideoffthewall.com