Theater review: Studio Tenn’s ‘Christmas Carol’ is Transcendent

FRANKLIN, Tenn. – It’s understandable to think there are no surprises left in the oft-told classic A Christmas Carol. Studio Tenn’s transcendent take on this beloved tale happily proves that’s not true.

The stage of the historic Franklin Theatre pulsates with 18 players weaving through, over, on and around a turntable-centered space (kudos to Peter Vaque and SpringTree Media for that turntable). Director/Designer Matt Logan’s sparkling vision reminds me of the thrill I got watching Royal Shakespeare Company actors transform into multiple roles in a sprawling eight-and-a-hour-long production of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby many years ago (though of course in much less time).

The troupe – adorned in Logan’s terrific character-and-period-adaptable modernistic garb – plays characters and provides narration from Charles Dickens’ masterful 1843 novella with precision, energy and emotion. They enrapture us anew with this well-known story: fine acting, lush live music, Paula Y. Flautt’s rich adaptation and Logan’s exquisite framing make this Christmas Carol a fresh celebration of life.

Back to play Scrooge for the company is Chip Arnold. The white-haired Arnold wears the years of his character’s wretched avarice while still possessing the vitality he’ll need to deal with supernatural visitations and a remarkable transformation. His presence is powerful and his portrayal is as intricate as a well-crafted timepiece.

Matthew Carlton and Nan Gurley certainly have their strong solo moments – such as Carlton’s woeful Jacob Marley – but they’re worth mentioning together since they pair off nicely as the Fezziwigs and as Mrs. Fred’s Sister and her potential suitor Topper. Their harmonic convergence on the ballad “I’ll Walk Beside You” during the Fezziwig Christmas party flashback is beautiful.

There are also wonderful contributions from such regional standouts as Amanda Card (whose heartbreak as Belle is painfully palpable), Eric D. Pasto-Crosby (a gentle and reflective Bob Cratchit), Jennifer Whitcomb-Oliva (a commanding Ghost of Christmas Present), Brandon Hirsch (an animatedly engaging nephew Fred) and Ryan Wotherspoon (particularly appealing as Belle’s sensitive husband).

The ever-versatile Kim Bretton once again provides her pitch-perfect Mrs. Cratchit to the proceedings, aided as before with the appearance of her increasingly-adorable now five-and-three-quarters-year-old son Herbie Horrocks as a cute but never cloying Tiny Tim. She and Gurley are both funny and endearing as ladies seeking a charitable donation from the miserly Ebenezer, but that and other acting moments aren’t all Bretton contributes to the show; the UK native also serves as the production’s dialect coach, and accents for all are impeccable.

In addition to Horrocks there are other young performers who make a good mark – Mary Marguerite Hall, Bella Higginbotham, Charlie Webb, Vienna Dohler, Gabrielle Toledo and Jack Alcott among them – led by Madeleine Hall as the spritely Ghost of Christmas Past. And when it comes to specters, Bridget Berger’s Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is memorable not just for the actor’s ability to convey her forbidding character without words but also for the rather inventive get-up Logan has created for her (complete with one of Sondra Nottingham’s wonderful wigs).

That happy conjunction of performer and costume is one of many examples where the elements of this show are in blissful balance. Conductor/keyboardist Nathan Burbank and his fellow musicians – violinist Jonathan Schrauger, cellist Amy Stennett, Ken Ozimek on woodwinds and David Dismuke providing percussion – seamlessly play everything from Mozart and holiday traditionals to original music that easily bonds with the onstage action. Emily Tello Speck’s lovely choreography blends into that action quite naturally, and the technical direction of Logan’s co-set designer Mitch White insures that Stephen Moss’ lights and Danny Northup’s sound are clearly and crisply executed.

It’s been a marvelous year for Middle Tennessee theater, and Studio Tenn’s incredible output has helped to make it so. Their serving of A Christmas Carol is an experience to savor as 2012 ends.

Studio Tenn’s version of A Christmas Carol continues through Dec. 16 at the Franklin Theatre (419 Main St.) Show times are 7 p.m. with 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday matinees. For tickets ($47.50 and up for singles; group packages available) call (615) 538-2076 or visit StudioTenn.com.

 

 

 

 

 

*Photos by ANTHONYMATULA courtesy Studio Tenn.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman’s “The People vs Larry Flynt” among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).