As surely as Hanukkah, Nochebuena and Christmas come around every year, so do certain staples of holiday entertainment. It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street are among the most beloved movies that show up (over and over) on TV. The Nutcracker helps keep ballet companies in business. For theaters, A Christmas Carol is the holiday perennial.
At Actors’ Playhouse in Coral Gables, artistic director David Arisco wanted to give his December audiences something fresh yet resonant. So he picked Mark Brown’s The Trial of Ebenezer Scrooge, a “sequel” set a year after the events depicted in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
The best lines, however, are the ones plucked straight from the Dickens novella. Sorry to be all “bah, humbug!” about it, but Brown is no Dickens.
That doesn’t mean that The Trial of Ebenezer Scrooge, which is playing in the upstairs space at the Miracle Theatre through Dec. 27, isn’t entertaining or enjoyable, at least intermittently. The cast is a fine one, and Carbonell Award winner Ellis Tillman has outdone himself in creating the costumes, bringing style and a sense of period into Gene Seyffer’s rendition of a formal London courtroom setting.
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The play is a comedy — at least that’s what Arisco said during his pre-show speech on opening night — but its laughs, like Scrooge’s spending habits, are minimal.
The setup is this: A year after A Christmas Carol, the old skinflint seems to have reverted to unrepentant crankiness. He’s suing the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future for breaking and entering, kidnapping, slander, pain and suffering, infliction of emotional distress and attempted murder. The defendants have come to trial in the courtroom of Judge Stanchfield R. Pearson (Gregg Weiner), who is as tough on the long-suffering Bailiff Connolly (Carl Waisanen) as sourpuss Scrooge (Kevin Reilley) was to his clerk Bob Cratchit (Wayne LeGette).
The ghosts, represented by Solomon Rothschild (John Felix), are questioned by their lawyer and by Scrooge, who has decided to serve as prosecutor. The Ghost of Christmas Present doesn’t show, but Past (Lindsey Corey) and Future (Ryan Didato) do, along with a variety of witnesses: Scrooge’s deceased partner, Jacob Marley (LeGette); the Cratchits, Mr. (LeGette) and Mrs. (Diana D’Ambrosio); Scrooge’s cheerful nephew Fred (Didato); community activist Miss Wainwright, shady scavenger Mrs. Dilber and a ghost “translator” (all played by D’Ambrosio); Scrooge’s sister Fan and his lost love Belle (Corey).
The Christmas Carol story gets retold in bits and pieces, as the actors strive mightily to make the play more buoyant. What Scrooge is up to with his lawsuit is revealed in the end, but you’re more likely to go “hmmm” than “awww” or “a-ha!.”
Arisco’s all-Equity cast of polished pros is good and inventive, despite being hampered by some of the material. Felix’s Rothschild, for example, asks each witness whether he can call them by a certain name; for the Ghost of Christmas Past, he inquires whether he may address her as “Past.” Funny the first time, not so funny the fifth or sixth, but that’s not the actor’s fault.
Corey, who looks beautiful in a white gown with an accent of red roses, adopts an annoying vocal tic (she puts three singsong syllables into each “no” and “yes”) during her testimony as the Ghost of Christmas Past, but she’s moving as Fan and Belle. D’Ambrosio gets to sport four different characters and costumes, and she’s most memorable as Miss Wainwright (her purple and black ensemble by Tillman is stunning) and the thieving lower-class Mrs. Dilber.
LeGette, whose Marley voice has a nice ghostly echo thanks to sound designer Shaun Mitchell, impressively nails his accent, the humor of his character and the spirit of the piece. The look and sound of Reilley’s Scrooge are a bit reminiscent of Alastair Sim, who so memorably played the miser in the 1951 Christmas Carol movie. Didato is stuck in a massive black getup with glowing green eyes as the Ghost of Christmas Future — and the character speaks a ghostly gibberish, hence D’Ambrosio’s courtroom translator — but his Fred is pure, warm joy in a plaid suit. Waisanen and Weiner keep the proceedings rolling with their good bailiff-bad judge routine.
There are reasons, many of them, for the staying power of A Christmas Carol, which was first published in 1843. The temptation to rework a classic is a powerful one, and Brown is hardly the first to do so. But The Trial of Ebenezer Scrooge doesn’t ring nearly as many Christmas bells as the story that inspired it.
If you go
What: ‘The Trial of Ebenezer Scrooge’ by Mark Brown.
Where: Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday (additional matinee 2 p.m. Dec. 9), through Dec. 27.
Cost: $53 Friday-Saturday, $45 weeknights and matinees (10 percent senior discount, $15 student rush tickets, excludes Saturday-Sunday).
Information: 305-444-9293 or www.actorsplayhouse.org.