Cheers to Another ‘Christmas on the Rocks’ at TheaterWorks – Introducing Karen

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Jenn Harris as Karen (from Frosty the Snowman) and Ronn Carroll as the bartender in “Christmas on the Rocks” at TheatreWorks in Hartford. Photo Credit: http://www.facebook.com/TheaterWorksHartford

Hartford’s TheaterWorks is serving up its traditional Christmas special on the rocks with a minor change in the ingredients this holiday season.

It’s like laughing with friends over a drink, or may as well be with the familiar and realistic bar set decked out with Christmas decor from the infamous leg lamp to twinkle lights. The bar is described in the program as “a local bar in a lonely corner of the comos, Christmas Eve.”

The actors are the same as last year. Ronn Carroll is the warm, welcoming and fatherly bartender – our host of sorts for the evening as multiple grown-up Christmas characters stumble across his bar one-by-one and talk to him about their holiday woes.

Jenn Harris and Matthew Wilkas show their versatility playing all of the Christmas character roles.

Harris introduces a new character to the series of vignettes, each written by different playwright. She swaps Cindy Lou Who for Karen from the animated version of “Frosty the Snowman” in a very modern new media infused scene entitled “My Name is KAREN!” that she collaborated on writing with Wilkas.  She presents a bitter, fame-crazed Karen, who is furious with Frosty for how everyone knows his name and fails to give her due credit for saving him. Fleeing the police after snowman-napping a melted Frosty in a bucket, she bursts into the charming but empty holiday pub on Christmas Eve. She holds our beloved bartender hostage as she live-streams a video blog of sorts, yelling to the world that she is KAREN and denouncing Frosty. The scene has added visual intrigue with two projected screens on the side displaying what seems to be the live broadcast, with Karen’s face hilariously close to the screen.

The other vignettes are the same as year’s past, but darling. Audio of different Christmas movies plays to simulate the bartender flipping through channels watching them. Wilkas opens the show playing a nostalgic and depressed Ralphie from “A Christmas Story” in “All Grown Up” by John Cariani. He sets up the plot of several Christmas icons coming to life, entering the real world from their stories. It’s a very quick explanation the bartender is quick to accept and that we’re supposed to believe. The magic of Christmas, you know. The scene has a tapestry of popular lines from the movie woven into the dialogue. Wilkas’s re-enactment of Ralphie’s first introduction to the leg lamp got a lot of laughs.

Wilkas later plays a flamboyant, sassy, hyper and spiteful dentist elf Hermey ,  who describes taking down fame-hogging Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer in “Say it Glows” by Jeffrey Hatcher. It’s one of the most lively scenes in Wilkas’s expressiveness and the physicality that he puts into the animated elf. It’s his most high-energy character, as many of the others are much more depressed.

He also plays a downtrodden, unappreciative Tiny Tim in “God Bless Us Everyone” by Theresa Rebeck – English accent and all.

The stories alternate between male and female protagonists. Harris’s characters are the more obscure of the Christmas characters – which makes you realize how many holiday stories have male main characters. If you’re seeing the show for the first time, it’s always fun to try to figure out who each character is. Before Karen, she starts off as the cutest little girl in the world – Sue – from “A Miracle on 34th Street” in “The Cane in the Corner” depicting the stressful life of a single working mom. She’s a realtor now and buried in her job and cellphone. The scene has one of the more uplifting endings, closing with hope, though most of the characters come to some self-realizations that even slightly pull them out of their slumps.

Harris has more comical roles in the show – particularly her scene as Clara from “The Nutcracker” in “Still Nuts About Him” by Edwin Sanchez. I enjoyed her Russian accent and when she maniacally smashes peanuts in the rage of a jealous, overlooked wife – she’s married to the Nutcracker.

The last vignette, “Merry Christmas, Blockhead” by Jacques Lamarre wraps the show up very nicely with an uplifting ending. It’s the only scene that Harris and Wilkas appear in together. Wilkas presents a Charlie Brown who hasn’t changed at all in his depressed demeanor – now married to Lucy (his sister Sally is married to Schroeder). The scene starts off very sad, particular when you hear what happened to Snoopy. Harris’s entrance as Little Red-haired girl changes the tone of the scene as she and Charlie Brown interact. Their dance is so cute and brings back the child in all of us, closing the show with more hope for the future.

Carroll’s bartender is the only character who appears in all the scenes. He’s like our narrator and has a certain all-knowingness about him. It’s interesting how his character has more sympathy for some characters than others. He’s endearing with some of them and gets frustrated with others who he yells at, particularly Clara and Tiny Tim. He walks out of the room during Hermie’s monologue because he’s so ridiculous and we acknowledge his annoyance. Just like the characters are timeless, so is he – almost like he is Father Christmas. His cane is placed in the corner, so could he be Santa?

Rob Ruggiero is the returning director, who put the original show together at least a couple years ago. Last year, he mentioned considering adding Zuzu from “It’s a Wonderful Life” as a character. I’d also love to see Rusty or Audrey from “Christmas Family Vacation,” Kevin from “Home Alone” and the little boy in “Love Actually” too – and Rob, if you’re reading this, I’d love to write a vignette for future consideration.

“Christmas on the Rocks” is a TheaterWorks original production and is a holiday tradition with a twist that you won’t want to miss! If you are familiar with all of the Christmas stories represented in it, you’ll connect with it and laugh the most.

More information about “Christmas on the Rocks” is available on the TheaterWorks website at http://theaterworkshartford.org. The show runs through Dec. 23.

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Bill Raymond Plays Scrooge for the Last Time in Hartford Stage’s ‘A Christmas Carol’

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Bill Raymond and the Ghosts of A Christmas Carol. Photo Credit: T. Charles Erickson

God bless Bill Raymond, who has warmed our hearts as Scrooge in Hartford Stage’s annual “A Christmas Carol” over the past 20 years and who is retiring the role after this run. 

Raymond is the heartbeat of the show – and he will be missed. He gives us the gift of both his comedy and more serious acting, blending them into a lovable, humorous, perhaps senile, money-hoarding curmudgeon who we can’t quite call a villain. He also puts physicality into to role, from the hip-thrusting windup to get his character’s old self down the stairs to air sword-fighting an imaginary spirit (while enjoying spirits of his own), complete with light saber sound effects. 

One of my favorite parts is when Raymond takes awhile to lock up for the night and you hear the key against the locks for an extended period of no dialogue as we all watch him do it. Only then his employer Bob Cratchit asks for his wages so he has to go through the whole rigamarole again to unlock his desk. One minor note! Scrooge either forgot to lock up or he only turned one lock making it unnoticeable. 

Noble Shropshire is as important to this production as a feather duster is to his opening character Mrs. Dilber, Scrooge’s maid. More notably, he doubles as Jacob Marley, who also helps Scrooge out, albeit it at the cost of overnight visits by three spirits – the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Future and Christmas Yet to Come. Shropshire has the challenge of playing a woman – often a comedic tool in theater – and a horrifying spiritual flown up from the red, smoky bowels of a stage trap door. He emphasizes classic Dickens lines like “the wicked old Screw,” Marley “died seven years ago this very night” and “dead  as a doornail” (to which Raymond responds “that’s not very nice) like punch lines. His facial and vocal expressivity makes Mrs. Dilber a powerful caricature.   

Johanna Morrison, Alan Rust and Michael Preston are other favorites reprising their roles as Bettye Pidgeon, the doll seller, Bert, the cider maker and Mr. Marvel, the inventor and steam enthusiast in the marketplace – all debtors to Scrooge. It’s always good to see their faces again.

Morrison is lovely as always, doubling as the Spirit of Christmas Past. Her entrance on a glittering sleigh gliding through puffs of fog is always breathtaking artistry. She also played Old Josie,  pawn dealer of sorts. 

Rust is jolly and fatherly as Bert and the Spirit of Christmas Present. The two children riding on his cart and sitting at the base of his festive throne as cherubs are adorable. The clever use of gold glitter for his happy juice makes his seasons sparkle and sets the tone for a giddy, drunken Scrooge. 

Preston is lively entertainment and passionate as Mr. Marvel. I always thought he played the uncredited role of the Spirit of Christmas Future, but it turns out that a Hartt student is usually granted the privilege of riding a tall tricycle as the ominous sprit.

The doubling of ghost and person is symbolic of how Scrooge could have learned from the people in his life and how integral the ghosts are to his everyday life afterward. Morrison as Betty is selling dolls – a nostalgic toy from childhood – and Scrooge carries the doll he confiscated as collateral for her debt with him when he’s with the Spirit of Christmas Past. Bert sells cider, something you might drink at a party with friends to live in the moment, and Scrooge drinks cider when he’s with the Spirit of Christmas Present. It’s implied that Marvel is also the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come because of his clock hat and the contraption he scoots around carrying his invention – a steam-powered clock. There’s also the beautiful clocks projected in light on the floor. Time is always an unknown when you think about the future, which is why his cutting-edge clock invention is crucial. The mirroring also humanizes the spirits.

In a flashback scene with characters whirring through Marvel came in complaining Scrooge took his invention though it appeared it was still on the cart.

The ensemble is also very talented from a silly flirtatious exchange between Scrooge’s nephew Fred’s sister-in-law (Vanessa R. Butler) and Mr. Topper to the glow-in-the dark Victorian styled ghostly apparitions. Butler also served as dance captain. Every time the ghosts appeared they danced both gracefully and abruptly startling, clinking and pounding their chains on the floor bringing percussion to the moves. One ghost was even flown across the stage, giving it visual levels. Every now and then the spirits would lunge out toward the audience and half, never touching the spectators but not afraid to stare them down in the front row. 

It’s all in good fun though and the high energy and humor in an otherwise dark Christmas story makes the show appealing for children who don’t spook easily. 

I was delighted to see Robert Hannon Davis return as the endearing Bob Cratchit. He is a friendly familiar face and a kind and gentle presence. He is straight man to Raymond’s comedy, often smiling politely when Scrooge is being hilariously eccentric almost cuing us to laugh. He’s with us. 

Rebecka Jones plays a composed and loving Mrs. Cratchit, but I most enjoyed her as Mrs. Fezziwig. She and Charlie Tirrell as Fezziwig, Scrooge’s jolly first employer, had extraordinary comedic chemistry.

The children in this production were as adorable as always, particularly Charlize Calcagno as Tiny Tim.

Hartford Stage casts people of all ethnicities no matter the traditional expectation for how the characters look, which is why you’ll see Terrell Donnell Sledge as a Black 30-year-old Scrooge when younger and older Scrooge are white. It’s meant to be about the spirit of the person playing the character, not just their appearance. I particularly enjoyed him as the cheerful and compassionate Fred, Scrooge’s nephew. 

Flor De Liz Perez was sweet as Belle and understanding and patient as Fred’s wife.

Not much has changed with this annual holiday production, but just like a Christmas movie you only get to watch it once a year and you look forward to it. Only with theater, you have the added nuance of it being live so anything can happen, which keeps it interesting.

There were times in the show when the actors relied on their own vocal projection for sound as opposed to mikes, so sometimes some of the lines were hard to hear. Luckily Hartford Stage is such an intimate setting that it was not as big of a problem as a larger theater.

It will be interesting to see what Hartford Stage does with “A Christmas Carol” yet to come without Raymond as our favorite holiday miser.

You can hear from Raymond and the cast at talkbacks following the performances on Saturday, Dec. 10 at 2 p.m. and Wednesday, Dec. 14, 7:30 p.m.

The play was adapted by original director Michael Wilson and Rachel Alderman directed this production. Hope Clarke choreographed the show.

“A Christmas Carol” runs through Dec. 30. For more information on the production and tickets, you can visit the Hartford Stage’s website or call the Box Office at 860-527-5151.

A glimpse of “A Christmas Carol” five years ago: