Intimate setting gives immediacy to ‘A Christmas Carol’ at the Phelps

UPDATE: Additional performances have been added at 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday (Dec. 16 and 17). Call the Phelps at 722-4873.

Reviewed by Nancy Oliveri

For the third year, Jan DeAngelo & Co. and Studio 271 Productions have brought their original adaptation of A Christmas Carol to the Phelps Mansion Museum in Binghamton. The show, which runs through Sunday (Dec. 18), sold out rather quickly, so you will want to be on the alert for ticket sales next year.

Nick DeLucia, Kate Murray, and Chris Nickerson at punch and cookies following the performance.

If you do go next year, be ready to join the actors as a “shadow” to Scrooge, Jacob Marley, the Cratchits and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come. DeAngelo’s original concept invites a small audience (not more than 30 people) to follow the actors from room to room as they perform, in sequence, the best scenes from Charles Dickens’ signature Christmas novella.  Performance doubles as a tour of the splendid surroundings of the Phelps, which can’t be discounted in terms of the whole experience.

Together, DeAngelo and Kate Murray directed a cast of almost two dozen actors, including themselves, in a production that begs the cooperation of the audience members, who are politely asked by the dapper first narrator (Ted Nappi , then later in the run, Nick DeLucia) not to interact with the cast. Depending on where you are standing (and you will be standing for at least half of the performance) the actors might be close enough to touch, so it’s important to let them do their work.

Because the set-up is like theater in the round, albeit on a very small scale, you may not see every interaction between the performers. The acting is so natural, however, and the script so true to the original book (with some slight accommodations for the limits of time and space) that you can close your eyes and just listen. Anxious not to disrupt the flow of a given scene, audience members may find themselves holding back tears. Joe Bardales as Bob Cratchit and Murray as his good Mrs. absolutely inhabit their characters as they mourn the loss of their beloved little boy, Tiny Tim.  I wanted to hug them both.

Chris Nickerson reprises his role as Ebenezer Scrooge, the miserable old sock whose days in the counting house have trained his focus on only one thing; money. Scrooge is a character who must undergo some changes in order to act upon the lessons taught to him. Nickerson’s job is to convince us that he’s been redeemed, and he does it in a number of tiny, compelling ways. One of the busiest actors in the region, Nickerson gives everything he does 100 percent.

The role of Marley was shared on different nights by Ted Nappi, whom I did not see, and DeAngelo, who must have envisioned himself as the stomping, howling, chain-dragging specter, when he began to generate this concept. DeAngelo’s Marley is a little more hale than I am used to imagining a guy who has been dead for seven years, but he is frightening, for sure.

Judy McMahon is back as the Ghost of Christmas Past. Her prompting of Scrooge to revisit his childhood and youth is urgent, yet gentle.

Jennifer Donlin as the larger-than-life Ghost of Christmas Present represents a stroke of inspired casting. I have never seen this ghost portrayed as, and by, a woman. With Sean Haggerty and Rosie Haggerty as the “scary children” close at her feet, her lesson on Ignorance and Want (which the children represent) is one of more timely messages of this classic story.

Mary Donnelly (Sean and Rosie’s mother in real life) has a beautiful speaking voice and delivery. Early in the performance, she and Donlin appear in Scrooge’s counting house as unwelcome advocates for the poor. Later, as the second narrator, Donnelly shepherds the audience through the narrow doorways from scene to scene.

DeLucia and Nappi also share the role of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, who says nothing and is hidden behind a mask, but is feared most of all by Scrooge. He reveals to Scrooge people who take actual pleasure in his passing: a charwoman,a laundress, and the undertaker. Please watch Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol to see where DeAngelo, McMahon and Missy Harris must have gotten their inspiration for these deplorables. They are perfect!

Supporting roles belong to Elliot Allen as young Scrooge’s friend, Dick Wilkins; Michael Rundell as the precious Tiny Tim, and Elijah Ramia, Molly Murray and Katelyn Rundell as the other Cratchit children. Terri-Jo Ramia and Sue Connelly join many of the leads as additional townsfolk.

Murray’s script adaptation is as true a retelling as any, with one of the most poignant representations of the scenes between Young Scrooge (Mike Ferguson) and his betrothed, Belle, touchingly played by Samantha Sloma. This is one of the few scenes that plays in the large space of the Phelps ballroom, so you won’t miss a thing and you also get to sit. Another joyful interlude in the ballroom involves the Fezziwigs’ Christmas party, and the dancing party-goers’ reel is a joy to watch. Jeffrey Wahl and Harris as Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig set the tone with music and song.

There are 13 Christmas stories by Dickens, but this is the most well-known and widely adapted. Scores of versions of A Christmas Carol have been staged or filmed, but I don’t remember anything quite like this one. I hope you can see it some day.

Joe Scheurch at the Phelps makes accommodations for those who can’t negotiate the stairs or who cannot stand for extended periods. Assisting with costumes, props and lighting are Jana Kucera, Shannon DeAngelo and Sonya Rundell.

Last Sunday’s performance (Dec. 11) was canceled due to inclement weather, but as of this writing, another performance has not been scheduled.

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