Reviewing Oklahoma City University's "A Christmas Carol" production last year, I noted that one reason for the ubiquitous holiday staple's multitude of performances is that it's pretty hard to screw up. This year's production is not bad.
But compared to 2008's dynamic adaptation, the current offering, directed by OCU faculty member David Pasto, feels pretty bare-bones in its approach to the story. Gone are both the atmospheric sounds of the docks on the Thames and the ghost of Jacob Marley conducting a symphony of people moving about the streets of London. Absent are the suggestion of Marley's redemption by saving Scrooge, and human beings in the roles of the spirits.
In what appears to be an attempt to prove that this production can take artistic risks, Marley, along with the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, have all been replaced with puppets. Unfortunately, when compared to the fabulous sets and costumes "? most of which seem to be re-used on a yearly basis for this show "? the puppets look like shabbily executed last-minute additions. Poorly formed and costumed, bearing no facial movements, casting Muppets would have been a better idea.
Instead, audiences get the three puppeteers doing their best to work with the rudimentary rods, providing some great vocal performances as they struggle to bring the characters to life. When contrasted against production values on display elsewhere, they look a little silly.
It's important to note that Pasto's production is superior to last year's in one significant arena: the performances of the actors playing human roles. Last year's show favored the supernatural, while this year's favors the mundane; Pasto and his excellent cast are anything but, bringing some of the least interesting scenes to life with characterizations that are sincere and moving. This is especially true of the scenes with the Cratchit family that, in most productions of "Carol," come across as the most hackneyed, but here, feel genuine in affection.
Veteran actor and OCU professor Hal Kohlman, who played Marley last year, now has the lead role of miserable miser and legendary party-pooper Ebenezer Scrooge. Very much in keeping with the tone of the show, his Scrooge is more grounded than Doug Brown's slightly zany take the previous year. Both men were imminently watchable, and while Brown's turn might have been more entertaining, Kohlman's is more edifying.
The arc of Scrooge's transition is clearer, with stark contrasts in his demeanor in the opening of the play and later after awaking to discover that Christmas has not yet passed. Kohlman also has the thankless task of acting against the puppets, which to his credit, he engages as if they were flesh and blood.
While not quite a page-turner, this serviceable production of "A Christmas Carol" features some fantastic performances from the lead and the supporting cast that make for a good casual read.
A Christmas Carol stages at 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 11 a.m. Thursday-Friday and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday presented by Oklahoma Children's Theatre and TheatreOCU at The Burg Theater, Oklahoma City University, 2501 N. Blackwelder.