By CB Adams

Remember that commercial from the late 80s with the tagline, “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile?” The Repertory Theatre of St Louis’s production of “A Christmas Carol” is kinda like that. This is not your father’s, or grandmother’s (or your crazy Aunt Millie’s) adaptation of this Dickensian tale of Ebenezer Scrooge’s war on Christmas. As you survey St. Louis’s rich assortment of holiday offerings (and there truly is a cornucopia that runneth over), this production entices with a shiny, progressive reboot of this Christmas chestnut.  

It’s a new spin on “A Christmas Carol” that’s perfect for those with short attention spans. This adaptation treats the story of Scrooge’s transformation as the plain evergreen upon which the shiny baubles of scenic design (Tim Mackabee), lighting and projections (Seth Reiser and Hana S. Kim), costumes (Dede Ayite), choreography (Kirven Douthit-Boyd) and hip hop choreography (Robert Crenshaw) are hung. Bringing youthful energy to the production are the Webster University conservatory cast, the Big Muddy Dance Company dancers, whose ghost dancers add much to certain key scenes, and a youth ensemble from the Center of Creative Arts.

By flattening the well-known story line whose lead character has been represented by everyone and everything from Alastair Sim and Michael Caine to Bill Murray and Mr. Magoo, this adaptation by Michael Wilson (the same as last year’s) embellishes the story of Scrooge’s transformation with new characters and scenes not in the Dickens novel.

Photo Credit: T Charles Erickson © T Charles Erickson Photography tcharleserickson.photoshelter.com

Upon each of the story’s key moments – Marley’s appearance, visits by the three Spirits, the Cratchit family’s penury, etc. – director Hana S. Sharif hangs contemporary dance numbers, special effects and humorous asides among all the dark, dank Victoriana. The dance is an especially effective component of this adaptation; the inconsistent use of modern colloquialisms – not so much.

The result is a Whitman’s Sampler of a production that tries too hard to provide a little something for every taste.  And like that holiday box, there’s all sorts of chocolates, including a rap-infused “O Come All Ye Faithful,” a Marley who flies up from beneath the stage like a spectral Peter Pan, a dance number that includes The Worm, and a Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come that’s part-Mad Max, part-Blade and part-Gimp from “Pulp Fiction.”

The latter makes his NFL-inspired entrance complete with hoverboard and ravers glasses. This ghost’s entrance is certainly impressive but calls too much attention to itself and pulls you out of the story. It also undercuts the emotional impact of Scrooge recognizing his tombstone – the climax of the story.

The same holds true for the final scene (not in Dickens’s original) with Scrooge hosting a party. This is a well-intentioned addition that hopes to highlight the new, improved Scrooge, but which borrows too much from the final scene in the “White Christmas” movie. It also weakens the intent of Dickens to use this story to examine the plight of the disadvantaged. As Scrooge promises the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, “I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach!”

Photo Credit: T Charles Erickson © T Charles Erickson Photography tcharleserickson.photoshelter.com

Sharif adds another complexity to this production  by double casting of most of the key roles. It was fun (and impressive) to see the way Laakan McHardy played both a doll seller and the Ghost of Christmas Past (the best of the portrayals of the spirits) and Paul Aguirre went from a refreshments vendor to a vampy, over-the-top Christmas Present. Michael James Reed also played double duty as Mrs. Dilber (Scrooge’s housekeeper with shades of “Mrs. Doubtfire”) and the spectral Jacob Marley – how’s that for range!

The roles of Scrooge and Bob Cratchit are played by Guiesseppe Jones and Armando McClain, respectively. McClain provides one of this production’s best and most consistent and balanced portrayals as the long-suffering Cratchit. Ultimately, “A Christmas Carol” hinges on the portrayal of Scrooge. Jones displays an impressive range, which he definitely needs in this adaptation that pivots (sometimes to distraction) from lightheartedly humorous to full-on King Lear-level theatricality. As impressive as Jones was in all his scenes, his performance was often too self-contained and lacked chemistry with the other actors.

Overall, this production is designed with lots of wow-factors to defy you to call it anything but bah-humbug. The success of this approach depends on how you like your Scrooge served up. If you’re seeking the more traditional, ye merry ole England version (I remember one from my youth that included real basset hounds on stage), this isn’t that. To its credit, this adaptation avoids the saccharin Timmy-fell-down-the-well savior sub-narrative of so many other productions. And, it brings a modern sensibility to this timeless, still all-too-relevant story.

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents “A Christmas Carol” November 19–December 30 at the Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road, St. Louis. For tickets or more information, visit: www.repstl.org.

Photo Credit: T Charles Erickson © T Charles Erickson Photography tcharleserickson.photoshelter.com

The Hettenhausen Center for the Arts (the Hett) at McKendree University will continue to connect its audiences to the arts in its 2020-2021 season, in some creative new ways if necessary.

The COVID-19 pandemic has posed unique challenges for scheduling, contracting and preparing to host events months in advance at the 488-seat auditorium, said Liz Crabtree, director of the Hett. Performances will be held on site if conditions are within the appropriate recovery phases of the governor’s Restore Illinois plan.

“We are reimagining our 2020-2021 season and remaining hopeful and flexible,” said Crabtree. “Performances could take place inside the auditorium, outside as a ‘concert in your car’ in the Hett parking lot like a drive-in movie, or virtually on-demand or live-streamed. I am committed to finding ways for us to connect with the arts.”

The Hett will adhere to state and local public health recommendations for events and will take appropriate precautions to protect audience members’ health and safety. Indoor seating capacity may be reduced to create more distance between individual seats, or pairs of adjacent seats, in order to minimize contact. The box office ticketing system may be adjusted accordingly, potentially making some seats unavailable.

A video preview, as well as ongoing updates, will be posted on theHett.com. Dates and times are subject to change. Friends of the Hett may purchase tickets starting on Aug. 3; the general public may do so beginning Aug. 13 at noon. Visit theHett.com or call 618-537-6863 (1-800-BEARCAT, ext. 6863) for tickets or more information. All events are open to the public. Prices will range from $5 for children to $38 for adults, with discounts for seniors and students.

Local and regional artists are the focus of the “Discovery Series” in 2020 and early 2021:

Aug. 29, 7:30 p.m.: Mr. Blue Sky, a recreation of the ultimate Electric Light Orchestra experience.

Oct. 1, 7:30 p.m.: The Traveling Salvation Show, an energetic Neil Diamond tribute.

Oct. 23, 7:30 p.m.: U.S. Air Force Starlifters play current and ’70s hits, rock, pop, jazz and country.

Nov. 10, 7: 30 p.m.: Old Salt Union, a progressive, high-energy Americana bluegrass-string band.

Dec. 6, 2 p.m.: Janet Evra gives bossa nova, samba and Latin a modern, indie twist.

Dec. 12, 7:30 p.m. and Dec. 13, 2 p.m.: U.S. Air Force Band of Mid-America in a joyful holiday season concert.

Dec. 16, 7:30 p.m.: Big Muddy Dance Company’s “Scrooge,” a contemporary dance satire on the classic tale of love and redemption.

Jan. 24, 2021, 7:30 p.m.: Dave Dickey Big Band performs jazz classics by Count Basie, Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, Buddy Rich and Duke Ellington.

“Discovery Series” performers may also include country singer Alexandra Kay, Randy Holmes, The Wee Heavies and The Brothers Jefferson. Check theHett.com for updates.

“McKendree Presents,” a series of national and international touring acts, will resume in 2021:

Annie Sellick, Nashville jazz vocalist, known for her pleasing, expressive voice.

Pat Hazell’s “Permanent Record” dives into the former “Seinfeld” writer’s personal records to confront his past, present and potential future with humor.

Beauty Slap combines funky, bold, big-band brass with electronic dance music grooves.

Leonid & Friends, an 11-piece band from Moscow, captures the spirit and musicality of jazz-rock super group Chicago.

The ReMINDers mixes soulful vocals and reggae-tinged hip-hop beats with inspiring messages.

Schoolhouse Rock Live! The hit cartoon is brought to life, updated for a new generation with a rock ’n roll feel.

Women in Jazz celebrates the legendary Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday and Nina Simone.

Goitse, an energetic, award-winning Irish quintet plays traditional and original tunes.

Carpe Diem String Quartet, an indie chamber ensemble with a repertoire of classical, Gypsy, tango, folk, pop, rock and jazz.

Pilobolus, dancers whose speed, accuracy and strength breaks barriers between disciplines.

ETHEL + Robert Mirabal: The River, a collaboration of music, narrative and ritual by an adventurous New York string quartet, a Native American artist and the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site.

The McCammon Distinguished Speaker Series will host two Nat Geo Live!speakers, Dr. Zoltan Takacs, a snake venom scientist; and Bertie Gregory, a wildlife photographer. Ishmael Beah, a former child soldier and human rights activist, and the idea lab, a TED Talk-style evening of speakers, will return next spring.

The Hett’s free Film Art Series will present “Booksmart,” Sept. 22; “The Night of the Hunter,” Oct. 12; “Scotland, Pa.,” Nov. 12; “Spider-man,” Feb. 11, 2021; “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” Feb. 23; and “The Anthropocene,” Apr. 22.

The “McKendree University Series” proudly presents talented students from the Division of Visual and Performing Arts throughout the year.

-McK-

The Russel E. and Fern M. Hettenhausen Center for the Arts—“The Hett”—is Southern Illinois’ premier performing arts venue, presenting world class dance, drama, classical music and jazz. The 488-seat auditorium is located on the McKendree University campus in Lebanon, Ill., 25 miles from downtown St. Louis.

New Urban-Rural Settings for Shakespeare in the Streets

Rehearsals Begin for ‘Love’s Labors Lost’ – Opens May 31 in Forest Park

The nationally-recognized Shakespeare in the Streets program will highlight the stories of not just one community, but two – Normandy, Missouri and Brussels, Illinois — for Shakespeare Festival St. Louis’ first urban-rural exchange Sept. 12-14. The performances will be inspired by the Bard’s play, “As You Like It.”

Audiences will choose whether to start in Normandy or Brussels — 45 minutes from one another — where Act One will begin at the same time in both locations. Act Two will take place on busses that transport the audience members to the banks of the Mississippi River. The final act will occur on the water between Missouri and Illinois where the actors will unite to share not only the same space but also the same story. Partners include Beyond Housing, the Normandy Schools Collaborative and Brussels High School. Event locations, casting and creative information will be released in July. 

In October, the Festival will unveil Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s 1957 12-part suite titled, “Such Sweet Thunder,” an extraordinary but long-forgotten piece of work inspired by different Shakespearean characters. In 1960, French choreographer Maurice Béjart used it as the score for an avant-garde ballet. The work will be revived in partnership with Jazz St. Louis to reconstruct the score, Big Muddy Dance Company to create new choreography, and the Festival, which will weave the pieces together with Shakespearean scenes and sonnets. A fourth partner, Nine Network, will host the resulting three free performances Oct. 3-5 in its Public Media Commons. Additional details will be released in late summer.

‘Love’s Labors Lost’ – May 31 through June 23

The Bard’s comedic take on love and courtship will resonate throughout Shakespeare Glen when the Princess of France (Kea Trevett) and her ladies arrive in the King of Navarre’s (Sky Smith) royal forest during Shakespeare Festival St. Louis’ production of “Love’s Labors Lost,” May 31 through June 23, in Forest Park. Performances are nightly, excluding Tuesdays, and begin at 8 p.m. Preview performances are scheduled May 29-30. 

Highlights of this lyrical comedic production include original music composed by St. Louis-based Rats & People Motion Picture Orchestra, a diverse cast under the direction of the festival’s Executive Producer Tom Ridgely, and a forested set that blurs that line between stage and park. 

“Love’s Labors Lost” features Shakespeare’s largest cast of comic characters, including four sets of lovers, and is the only one of his plays set in a park. The story revolves around the princess and her ladies who arrive on a diplomatic mission to Navarre, only to be met by the young king and his lords who have taken a vow not to see women. Affairs of state give way to affairs of the heart as Shakespeare reveals with great humor and compassion the way our culture sometimes doesn’t fully prepare us for the realities of love and intimacy. 

“I think Love’s Labors Lost asks the question of what happens when the ideas of love that young people absorb from their culture have totally unprepared them for what it’s like to actually be in a relationship with another human being,” Ridgely said. “The Bard’s advice to young lovers, I think, is how grand gestures don’t always pan out. Nor do disguises. He’s asking them to be curious, to get to know the actual person.” 

         The nightly Green Show will begin at 6:30 p.m. and feature local musicians, family art activities and roving performers. Free backstage tours will begin at 6:30 p.m. in front of the main stage. A 20-minute mini-play of “Love’s Labors Lost” will be performed Friday through Sunday by the Festival’s advanced teen ensemble, the Shakespeare Squadron. 

         Open lawn seating is available on a first-come, first-served basis. Premium seating, priced at $10 and $20, can be reserved online beginning Wed., May 1, at www.sfstl.com until noon the day of the show, or purchased after 5:30 p.m. in the Glen. Festival souvenir picnic blankets, comfortable for two and pre-set in the blanket seating area, are also available for $40. 

         Picnic fare, including sandwiches, snacks, beer, wine, soda, and water are available for purchase, provided by the Saint Louis Zoo. Audiences will be able to purchase Schlafly’s signature craft beer, available exclusively at the production in Forest Park. Cash, debit, and credit cards are accepted in Shakespeare Glen. 

         Four performances – June 4, 6, 13 and 20 – will be American Sign Language interpreted, thanks to support from Barnes-Jewish Hospital. Mind’s Eye Radio will also audio describe a performance for the visually impaired. 

         For a full cast and creative team list, please visit www.sfstl.com.  

About Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis presents Shakespeare and works inspired by his legacy of storytelling. Since 2001, the festival has grown from producing a single production of Shakespeare in the Park to a year-round season of impactful theater in exciting and accessible venues throughout the St. Louis community. The festival’s artistic and education programs reached over 50,000 patrons and students during the 2018 season and have reached over one million since 2001. In 2019, the Festival was recognized as a “What’s Right with the Region” finalist by Focus St. Louis. Leadership support for Shakespeare Festival St. Louis’ 2019 season is provided by the Whitaker Foundation. The festival is also funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Missouri Arts Council, the Regional Arts Commission, and the Arts & Education Council of Greater St. Louis. For more information, please visit www.sfstl.com, or call 314-531-9800. Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/shakesfestSTL Twitter: @shakesfestSTL Instagram: ShakesfestSTL Snapchat: shakesfestSTL