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Scrooge

Ryan Reynolds and Will Ferrell in a scene from 'Spirited.' Photo courtesy of Apple TV+

By Jeffrey Sanzel

No holiday season goes by without a new take on that perennial favorite, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Whether traditional or modern, serious or spoof, the story survives and thrives. 

Reviews are expected to contain some sense of objectivity. However, having had a long and personal connection to this story, I would be disingenuous, pretending I do not have strong, protective feelings. Over the years, I have viewed every version possible. 

Ryan Reynolds and Will Ferrell in a scene from ‘Spirited.’ Photo courtesy of Apple TV+

Adaptations of A Christmas Carol are most often referenced by their principals. Among the finest of the traditional versions are, of course, Alistair Sim and George C. Scott. The stronger musicals include Albert Finney, Mr. Magoo (voiced by Jim Backus), and the Muppets (with Michael Caine as the miser). Henry Winkler, Cicely Tyson, Vanessa Williams, Robert Guillaume, and Susan Lucci barely scratch the surface of the updated undertakings. Many are fans of Bill Murray’s Scrooged, but I confess to have never been on board with its strident humor and ambivalent ending. I have endured Kelsey Grammar, Tom Arnold, Tori Spelling, and even Barbie. 

This leads us to the newest addition, Spirited. Director Sean Anders has co-written the screenplay with John Morris. Composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (The Greatest Showman, La La Land, Dear Evan Hansen) provide the score. Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds star. And the film is pure, outrageous joy from beginning to end.

The plot is an absurdist mix of sentimentality and insanity, offering a fresh new vision that surprises and charms for the brisk two hours and ten-minute running time. Jacob Marley (phenomenal Patrick Page, looking and playing like a spritely Christopher Plummer) has managed the afterlife trio of Christmases Past (Sunita Mani, nailing both the earnest and the deadpan), Present (Ferrell at his best), and Future (voiced hilariously by Tracy Morgan), along with an enormous staff in what looks like a Victorian office meets twenty-first-century bureau. 

Each year, one reprehensible human is selected to be studied and redeemed. Research is done; sets are built; plans are made. The world is Alice in Wonderland crossed with M.C. Escher—sort of The Good Place: Holiday Edition.

Ryan Reynolds and Will Ferrell in a scene from ‘Spirited.’ Photo courtesy of Apple TV+

In a chance encounter, Present sets his heart on rescuing the seemingly unredeemable Clint Briggs (perfectly wry Ryan Reynolds), a media consultant lacking any conscience. Against Marley’s wishes, Present embarks on the mission to save the unsavable. Spoiler Alert (sort of): Present is Ebenezer Scrooge. The story then follows the intersection of these two who share a commonality. In essence, the question becomes, “Who redeems the redeemer?”

Ferrell is both genuine and hilarious, showing incredible restraint and real connection. He even succeeds as the traditional Scrooge in a few momentary flashbacks. Reynolds is the perfect foil, edgy and honest, and very funny. 

The great Octavia Spencer is Briggs’ quasi-Bob Cratchit but also becomes the object of Present/Scrooge’s affections. Glimpses of Brigg’s family, including his late sister, Carrie (poignant Andrea Anders), and her daughter, Wren (unassuming and genuine Marlow Barkley), build background. 

All these pieces are standard Christmas Carol tropes. But the zany, hyper-meta view matched by a fantastic score, jubilant dancing (outrageously choreographed by Chloe Arnold), and two lead performances that land every moment make Spirited something special. 

From the opening (“That Christmas Morning Feelin’”) to Reynold’s psychotic call to commerce (“Bringin’ Back Christmas”) to the greatest send-up of “Consider Yourself” since Monty Python’s “Every Sperm Is Sacred” (“Good Afternoon”), the film’s musical sequences simultaneously celebrate and satirize. Spencer finds the right blend of humor and heartache in “The View from Here.” While none of the leads are powerhouse singers, the uniformly pleasant voices hit the right vocal and emotional notes.

Anders succeeds on every level as director and adaptor, supported by a production team that delivers strong visuals and whimsical designs. He makes the central message—our choices make us who we are—feel earned rather than saccharine. In addition to a range of Dickens Easter Eggs, the film contains one of the greatest cameos seen in years.

Two more Christmas Carols will be arriving this season. A Christmas Karen takes a comedic look, with a demanding woman coming to terms with her sense of entitlement. Netflix offers the animated Scrooge: A Christmas Carol, adapted from the 1970 film. With a star-studded cast, Luke Evans voices Scrooge. Whether they become valued additions to the canon remains to be seen. In the meantime, we have Spirited to keep us warm and happy. 

I suspect many will disagree with this glowing assessment and see Spirited as one big “Bah, humbug.” As a good friend always said, “That’s why refrigerators come in different colors.” I went into this movie skeptical, dubious, and with my quill sharpened. But, like Scrooge, I left in a giddy state of Christmas euphoria.

Rated PG-13, Spirited is currently playing in local theatres as well as on Apple TV+.

Brodie Centauro as Scrooge in a scene from ‘A Christmas Carol’ at CMPAC. Photo by Lisa Schindlar

By Charles J. Morgan

Madison Square Garden’s “A Christmas Carol-The Musical” opened on Saturday, Nov. 21, at Oakdale’s CMPAC. That massive venue unveiled an equally massive cast with electronically fed music, and came up with a tightly executed rendition of that theatrical classic.

Brodie Centauro as Scrooge in a scene from ‘A Christmas Carol’ at CMPAC. Photo by Lisa Schindlar
Brodie Centauro as Scrooge in a scene from ‘A Christmas Carol’ at CMPAC. Photo by Lisa Schindlar

Your scribe takes pleasure in discussing Ronald Green III’s costumes. It may appear odd that costume design would appear first in a review, but your scribe was so impressed with Green’s effort, producing as it did a totally authentic representation of Dickensian, mid-Victorian dress.

Green’s attention to detail was seen even in a short vignette of a properly bewigged judge and a uniformed London bobby in Act II. All the cast members were costumed in varying versions of mid-19th century attire; some painstaking research was done here. Authenticity was called for and Green delivered.

The leading role of the penurious, miserly, arrogant opinionated, skinflint Ebenezer Scrooge was played stingingly by Brodie Centuro, no stranger to CMPAC. He accurately depicted the penny-pinching, negative nature of Scrooge, and with skillful “range-ability” revealed the lurking charity in the old codger with notable skill. This is what the craft of acting is all about: to exhibit sincere, believable change.

The principal ghost is that of Scrooge’s old partner Jacob Marley, laden with chains, each link made of bills from his accounting desk, and had Don Dowdell torturing the soul of Scrooge very effectively.

He was followed by three ghosts: Christmas Past-Steve Cottonaro, Present-Kyle Petty and Yet-To-Be-Alison Carella. Cottonaro and Petty were outstanding with Cottonaro all over the boards and Petty in royal garb working with dancers. Carella had the somber, deadly part of pointing to gravestones with guess-who’s name on one of them. Carella did it forcefully and with impact.

Mark Slomowitz played Mr. Fezziwig, the contra-Scrooge. Along with his wife, played by Kaylyn Lewis, he held an annual ball full of merry music and dancing. Theirs was the life-affirming attitude. Slomowitz was his usual adaptable self, as when he played Luther Bilis in South Pacific. Lewis is possessed of a powerful singing voice that reached all the way to Sayille … at least.

The loyal, hard-working Cratchit family had its head, Bob, played by Bobby Peterson, Katie Hoffman as his wife and Skylar Greene, Daniel Belyansky and Jack Dowdell (the lovable Tiny Tim) as his children. This grouping was the very opposite of Scrooge. They even toast him at Christmas dinner.

Fred, Scrooge’s nephew, is handled neatly by Joseph Bebry. He was the link between Scrooge’s loneliness and the family. And he brought it off with palpable accuracy.

The ghosts parade Scrooge through his life. At 8, he’s played by Jack Dowdell; at 12 by Daniel Belyansky and at by 18 Matthew W. Surico. This trio managed to sort out just the right tempo to reveal the evolution of Scrooge from promising young businessman to scolding curmudgeon … not an easy acting-directing task. A lot of children and bit players, with many doubling, rounded out the cast.

Notable was Dana Abruzzo as “Blind Hag,” who delivered a Teresias-like prophecy to Scrooge, biting in its impact.

Choreography was done by Kristen Digilio. She moved the characters around the crowded boards with precision and grace. Set design was by the unstoppable Patrick Grossman, who brought out the 19th Century outdoor setting with the same accuracy that showed his talents with non-naturalistic interiors. Overall direction was by Terry Brennan. Her directorial challenge here was with the enormous size of the cast, yet Brennan surmounted it handily.

Outstanding musical numbers included “Link By Link” by Marly, Scrooge and Ghosts. It was a moral, cautionary tale delivered eerily by the two with ethereal accompaniment. Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim’s duo, “You Mean More to Me,” was a tender ballad with understated pathos. “A Place Called Home” by Scrooge at 18 and in old age with Emily, played by Ashley Beard, was a sort of hymn to unrequited love. The lively, merry Mr. Fezziwig’s Annual Ball was a welcome merry romp.

This production was far from an “annual” seasonal show. It represented the essence of technical and aesthetic prowess only to be expected from the folks at CMPAC.

CM Performing Arts Center, 931 Montauk Highway, Oakdale, will present Madison Square Garden’s “A Christmas Carol” through Dec. 29. Tickets range from $20 to $29. For more information, call 631-218-2810 or visit www.cmpac.com.

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From left, Douglas Quattrock, Jeffrey Sanzel and Hans Paul Hendrickson in a scene from ‘A Christmas Carol.’ Photo by Elizabeth Castrogiovanni, Kayline Images

Theatre Three’s 32nd annual performance of “A Christmas Carol” opened last weekend. “Too early,” you may say. “It’s not even Thanksgiving yet.” Perhaps, but the spirit of Christmas — giving selflessly and spending time with the ones you love — is a message that holds true all year.

The show is based on Charles Dickens’ classic novel of cranky old miser Ebenezer Scrooge, who is concerned only with business. One Christmas Eve, the ghost of his deceased business partner Jacob Marley appears, wearing the chains he’d forged in life, “link by link,” and tells Scrooge he will be visited by three spirits — the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, who help him discover the true meaning of Christmas.

Published more than 170 years ago, Dickens’ tale of redemption quickly resonated with the working class and has remained a holiday favorite ever since.

Adapted for the stage by Theatre Three Executive Artistic Director Jeffrey Sanzel in 1983, the production is constantly evolving, revising itself, with subtle changes that keep it fresh. The audience is led through a gamut of emotions, from fear to sadness to pure joy — a true testament to the magic of live theater.

The show brings back familiar faces year after year, with Sanzel (Scrooge), Douglas Quattrock (Bob Cratchit), Steve McCoy (Jacob Marley) and George Liberman (Mr. Fezziwig) leading a talented cast of 20 who, combined, play nearly 100 roles. The entire company, from the seasoned actors to the children, does a phenomenal job.

Sanzel, who also directs, is in every scene and is wonderful. In a scene with the Ghost of Christmas Past, he instantly transforms from an old, hunched-over tired man to a young man again, dancing the night away at Fezziwig’s holiday party. The transition is effortless and quite remarkable.

Quattrock’s performance as Bob Cratchit is particularly moving, especially in his scenes with Tiny Tim (played by Ryan M. Becker), and Steve McCoy is a daunting Marley. Other standouts include Liberman as the jolly Mr. Fezziwig, Kiernan Urso in the role of young Scrooge and Amanda Geraci, who reprises her role as the sweet but sassy Ghost of Christmas Past. James D. Schultz tackles a new role this year as the cheeky Ghost of Christmas Present “to show the joys of mankind” and does a tremendous job. Newcomer Hans Paul Hendrickson brings an elevated level of tenderness to the role of Scrooge’s optimistic nephew, Fred Halliwell, that is top-notch and operates the towering Ghost of Christmas Future with ease.

A Victorian set designed by Randall Parsons, period costumes by Parsons and Bonnie Vidal, lighting by Robert W. Henderson Jr., music and sound by Ellen Michelmore and the many special effects pull it all together nicely to create a first-class production. Be it your second time or your 32nd, Theatre Three’s “A Christmas Carol” is well worth revisiting.

Arrive a little early and be treated to a selection of Christmas carols by the actors in the lobby and stay afterward for photo ops with Scrooge (proceeds benefit the theater’s scholarship fund).

Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson, will present “A Christmas Carol” on the Mainstage through Dec. 27. New this year, all evening shows begin at 7 p.m. Tickets range from $15 to $30. For more information, call 631-928-9100 or visit www.theatrethree.com.