A Christmas Carol did its thing, I did mine, and things were cool. But then the Rep went and raised $7 million and built a second stage, one that chairman William C. Nelson promised was a cornerstone element of "the revitalization of downtown." Then it went and mounted A John Denver Holiday Concert.
Christ almighty. Maybe Nelson was talking about downtown Branson.
I have to ask: How can a major arts institution — particularly one that immortalizes donors' names on the backs of chairs — have the chutzpah to double-dip on Christmas shows? Isn't the point of fundraising and endowments to produce art?
But all of my friends with divorced parents told me I couldn't skip two Christmases. You couldn't drag my corpse to the cornpone, so I sprang for the blood pudding.
A Christmas Carol is pretty good, as it should be. After all, the Rep's been doing it for 27 years. A quiet, humanistic parable frequently interrupted for urchin parades, it's chockablock with real ham — including Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present, played by Kathleen Warfel and Jim Gall, respectively. Both suck all the juice from these fat plums of parts, though Warfel (and Scrooge, too) gets lost in all that tiresome Fezziwig hubbub. Later, Matt Rapport goofs winningly as Topper, and Kathryn Bartholomew uncorks a grand turkey-call of a giggle as Topper's betrothed.
Director Linda Ade Brand salts down some of Dickens' sugar, especially in the quieter, superior Christmas Present passages. Cratchit women Jeanne Averill (as Mrs.) and Angela Cristanello (as Martha) are tender and world-weary; their joy at a meager Christmas supper is moving. Also strong is Mark Robbins, who wheedles wonderfully as thief-king Old Joe.
Unfortunately, many of these small moments are swallowed by the cavernous set. Worse, the effective scenes are usually followed by the full cast of 52 thundering through. Every 15 minutes, they come juggling and caroling, stomping all over whatever narrative interest the principals have ginned up.
Still, that famous ending works, thanks to the singular efforts of Scrooge-for-life Gary Neal Johnson. In his eighth year in the lead, Johnson spits out humbugs that sting more than real swearing. From his first anti-yuletide bleat to his climactic heel-clicking, he's a spectacular Scrooge, crotchety yet dignified, bitterly comic yet recognizably human. Even if you know exactly what's coming, when it happens and Johnson treats us to his flighty jigs and his dead man's laugh — ah, man, you'll feel it, too.
That feeling comes quicker, and less noisily, at this year's edition of Christmas in Song, Quality Hill Playhouse's holiday cabaret. After last year's roof-raising, gospel-tinged extravaganza, musical director J. Kent Barnhart is tacking back toward the gentle and the soothing.
As usual, Barnhart's piano accompanies one opera-trained dazzler (Victoria Botero, this time), one musical-comedy powerhouse (Amy Coady) and one utility guy who won't get in the way (Brandon Sollenberger). Often, the opera singer comes out determined to blast faces to putty, but Botero prizes beauty over booming. As she soloed on "The Peace Carol," a mellow awe settled over the crowd.
Because Botero never overpowers, not even on "O Holy Night," Barnhart trusts "Ave Maria" to Coady, the musical-theater belter. She does belt, but with a poignant humility, a sense of her rising to the piece instead of showing off atop it. Barnhart enlivens the revue with jokes, and Sollenberger distinguishes himself, but this year's Christmas in Song is all about the ladies — and some much needed peace and quiet.