Middle Tennessee has no shortage of familiar holiday entertainments these days, from Nashville Ballet's reimagined Nutcracker (now in its fifth year) to Tennessee Rep's A Christmas Story (four years and counting) to Studio Tenn's third consecutive production of Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Accomplished as these remountings are, there's plenty of room for other companies to lay claim to seasonal good tidings. Case in point: two locally staged comedies that satirically exploit Dickens' Yuletide classic with worthy results.
First up is SistaStyle Productions with Mary McCallum's original take on A Christmas Carol, set in the modern day. The Scrooge/Marley business establishment is a pawn shop, and its ruthless proprietor, Eberta Scrooge, is an African-American businesswoman, a staunch member of the NRA and a committed Republican who refuses to remove the "Romney for President" placard from her shop window.
Eberta is all about money, so it's no surprise when her employee, Bob Cratchet, lets it be known that his job does not include health insurance, and hence his son Tiny Tim's surgery has to be put off. Meanwhile, the Cratchet kids hang out on the street break-dancing for tips.
After various incidents where Eberta castigates the neighborhood poor folk, her niece comes around to invite her to Christmas dinner, but that's a no-go. Instead, Eberta, shotgun in hand, keeps watch over her store Christmas Eve, whereupon the expected ghosts show up to tap into her nostalgic feelings, evoke the memory of her past love, and open her heart to the spirit of the season.
Like many a grassroots production, this one is devoid of elaborate sets or high-tech glitz. There are no misty vapors, echoing voices or spooky apparitions here.
But McCallum's script begins with a palpable darkness that transforms into lightness and laughter, and she has some knowing fun with the Obama-vs.-Romney debate (including a surprise appearance by Michelle Obama herself). There are also a few loosely staged musical numbers featuring Christmas pop tunes.
Of course, to pull off A Christmas Carol without the technological bells and whistles, you need an ace Scrooge, and the always excellent Tamiko Robinson is fabulous, ranging from loud, ornery and cruel to tender, meek and humbled.
Shawn Whitsell, LaToya Gardner and Shelena Walden, among others, provide good support. The Cratchet kids are charmingly portrayed by Carmen Ridley, Cayla Ridley, Isabella Jackson and Micah Robinson.
Down in Franklin, Boiler Room Theatre is serving up Christopher Durang's Mrs. Bob Cratchit's Wild Christmas Binge. Some local theatergoers may recall the 2006 GroundWorks Theatre production of this bonkers farce, but it's definitely worth another look, especially since BRT has captured the script's lunacy so very well.
Playwright Durang's body of work epitomizes irreverence (see Betty's Summer Vacation) — and he has a penchant for taking his satire to an uncomfortable edge. That happens sometimes here, where a fed-up Mrs. Cratchit — played with over-the-top British zeal by Lisa Gillespie — hates her long-suffering life and decides to get drunk and jump off the London Bridge.
Meanwhile, a ghost (Piper Jones) attempts to set Mr. Scrooge (Phil Perry) on the straight-and-narrow and fails at every turn, only serving to confirm the renowned curmudgeon's selfish, miserly ways. Eventually, Scrooge and Mrs. Cratchit get fast-forwarded to 1977 and become Leona and Harry Helmsley, and Bob Cratchit (Brad Oxnam) finds himself a second wife (Vicki White).
Throughout, Durang teases us with silly references (some a little dated, but to no detriment): the Enron scandal (Scrooge dabbles in energy credits!), Paxil, Zoloft, TV shows and movies and, of course, the particulars of the Dickens original. Mr. Fezziwig's heart attack is played strictly for laughs, and Tiny Tim (Josh Lowery) is way bigger than his dad. Also, the Cratchits' poverty and hunger are subject to ridicule, which is funny, but becomes almost too dark for laughter after a while.
Musical director Jamey Green plays the piano for a few songs (credited to Michael Friedman), improvises snippets from bluesy standards with Jones, and also throws in funny cameos as Clarence the bumbling angel from It's a Wonderful Life and Jacob Marley's ghost.
Under Corbin Green's freewheeling direction, the cast of 12 excels — even when it looks like Durang's excess might be too much to bear — and the ensemble brings the madness home in just a tad over two hours. Also on board doing energetic work are J. R. Knowles, Bryce Connor, Taylor Green and youngsters Hayden Gill and Addison McFarland. (The show is being performed in repertory with the musical A Year With Frog and Toad. Check boilerroomtheatre.com for dates and times.)
If you're a little burned out on the same old Christmastime theater offerings, both productions offer worthy alternatives. Traditional or not, either of these riffs on Dickens should be more than capable of drawing a chuckle or three out of even the most committed Scrooge.
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