Performing Arts

IRT and Phoenix Christmas shows offer different takes on the season

IRT and Phoenix Christmas

There are two shows currently playing that have become Indianapolis traditions but are on vastly different ends of the spectrum in terms of their approach to spreading the message regarding the true meaning of Christmas. One is the time-honored “A Christmas Carol” at the Indiana Repertory Theatre and the other is “A Very Phoenix Christmas X” at the Phoenix Theatre. Examlysis.com saw both on their opening nights—the former on Friday, Nov. 27 and the latter on Saturday, Nov. 28. Herein are reviews.

“A Christmas Carol”

This reviewer has seen numerous “A Christmas Carol” annual productions at Indiana Repertory Theatre over the course of its 20-year tenure.

The late IRT artistic director Tom Hass wrote this stage adaptation of the classic Charles Dickens’ novel of the same title, published in 1843. It’s a cautionary tale about stingy old Ebenezer Scrooge. Four ghosts who visit him on Christmas Eve scare him into changing his greedy ways after which he finds redemption. A condensed version of Dickens’ story, individual cast members serve as the play’s narrators

.IRT associate artistic director Courtney Sale ably directed “A Christmas Carol” for the second year in a row and ensured that Haas’ compressed version of Dicken’s story maintained it’s fast pace without sacrificing any its meaningful content.

Playing Scrooge for the seventh year in a role was Ryan Artzberger. As he has done in the past, Artzberger’s played Ebenezer as middle-aged (his own age) rather than the elderly, decrepit man he is usually depicted as. It’s a curious choice, and one that is ultimately distracting. Once again, however, he was successful at conveying Scrooge’s meanness as an armor created by the bitter miser to protect himself from the psychological trauma he suffered as a child and young man. During the scene in which Scrooge awakens on Christmas Day and discovers that he is still alive, Artzberger’s character breaks into prolonged silly laughter. Though the audience seemed to take delight in it , this writer found it excessive in its exaggeration.

Charles Goad, who starred in the role of Scrooge for numerous years prior to Artzberger, played Topper and the ghost of Christmas Future. He also turned in a chilling portrayal of the ghost of Scrooge’s business partner Marley which, like last year, was fright-inducing in its intensity.

Will Mobley was appealing as the undertaker, young Scrooge and as Scrooge’s kind and patient nephew Fred, who remains compassionate and loving towards his abusive Uncle whom he never gives up on.

Also deserving praise for her zany characterizations of the Sister of Mercy, Mrs. Fezziwig, Plump Sister, and Charwoman was veteran IRT actor Constance Macy.

Showing a strong presence was promising young actor Grayson Molin who played Peter Crachit and a vivacious Ghost of Christmas Past.

Scenic designer Russell Methany, costume designer Murell Horton, lighting designer Michael Lincoln and composer and sound designer Andrew Hopson all contribute to the production’s superb technical elements. The raked stage, the former Indiana Theatre architectural elements in the background, magnificent lighting, trap doors, the extravagant costumes, the large gold frame that serves as a primary prop, a forbidding music score and, of course, the artificial snow all combine to create lavish sensory stimulation.

For tickets and information about “A Christmas Carol,” presented by Indiana Repertory Theatre, call (317) 635-5252 or visit irtlive.org. The production continues through Dec. 26.

“A Very Phoenix Xmas X: Oh Come Let Us Adore Us”

For the tenth year in a row, the always provocative and adventurous Phoenix Theatre presents its annual holiday variety show, “A Very Phoenix Xmas” with its irreverent collection of sketches, songs and dances.

This year there is an added attraction in the person of Phoenix founding member and audience favorite Gayle Steigerwald. A gifted actor and comedienne, Steigerwald serves as the narrator for this anniversary edition during which she takes the audience back through the years by sharing anecdotes and describing photos, projected on the set, from previous year’s productions.

The show is directed by Bryan Fonseca, who is assisted by Phoenix playwright-in-residence Tom Horan. Both serve as curators.
The all-star cast includes includes Scot Greenwell, Paul Hansen, Olivia Huntley, Rob Johansen, Eric J. Olson, Sara Rieman, Lincoln Slentz, and Gayle Steigerwald. Making a special appearance is singer and musician Deb Mullins.

The unconventional tone of the show was set when the show opened with an ensemble of Sock Monkeys consisting of Greenwell Hansen, Huntley, Johansen, Reiman and Slentz, who danced to Straight No Chaser’s “The Christmas Can-Can” while executing choreography by Mariel Greenlee. Greenlee, a Dance Kaleidoscope dancer and Phoenix Theatre staff member, created all the show’s choreography.

From that point on the show’s content was mostly entertaining, with some sketches working better than others in terms of their comic impact. Some were very funny, others were mildly amusing and a few fell short. But that had more to do with the material than with the talented actor/singer/dancers who performed it. There were also a few moments of seriousness in the program that turned out to be some of its best.

Program favorites for this reviewer in Act 1 included “O Tannenbaum”, featuring Greenwell as a Christmas tree, who happens to be Jewish, and Olson as a Jew married to a Christian. During this set, the two of them engage in a fascinating discussion about celebrating difference and finding common ground. It was followed by a moving rendition of “Elhoia N’tzor”, a reverent Hebrew prayer by the entire ensemble, which turned out to be a highlight of show for this writer.

Act 2 featured a few highlights as well. They included Hansen, wearing a hilarious deadpan expression, as yet another Christmas Tree tap dancing, and quite well, to Nat King Cole’s “The Happiest Christmas Tree.”

Playwright Andrew Black’s “Putting Away Decorations”, featuring Johansen as a loving father and Slentz as his enthusiastic son who doesn’t want Christmas to end, was a one of the show’s most touching sketches.

Well known local performer Deb Mullins also made a strong impression as she sang “Rogers and Hart’s melancholy “Little Girl Blue,” with track by Brent Marty.

Ending the show on an uplifting and hopeful note was Eric Olson on guitar, who was joined by the entire cast in singing John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” with a track by Tim Brickley.

“A Very Phoenix Christmas X” is definitely a panacea for those weary of the usual holiday fare and looking for a little edge in their seasonal entertainment. Not recommended for children, the production runs through Dec. 20.

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