Milwaukee Repertory Theater's 'A Christmas Carol' is a large-spirited, interactive thrill ride

·3 min read
Lee E. Ernst receives a warning from Mark Corkins in "A Christmas Carol," performed by Milwaukee Repertory Theater.

"You fear the world too much, Ebenezer," Belle tells Young Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol," breaking off their engagement.

By the time he ages into the senior portrayed by Lee E. Ernst in Milwaukee Repertory Theater's production, Scrooge is a shrunken, constricted little man (with a nagging cough he's apparently too cheap to have checked out) — a grasping Gollum of greed. He lashes out at anyone who he thinks might threaten his hoard, but only his clerk Bob Cratchit (Reese Madigan) actually fears him, because he needs the job to feed his family.

After a year's hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Mark Clements' adaptation of the Charles Dickens tale has returned to the Pabst Theater. It is an extroverted, interactive, graphic-novel staging of the story, with a stunning multi-level set designed by Todd Edward Ivins — I could see several scenes as thrilling theme park rides.

Clements also directs the production, with music direction by Dan Kazemi.

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MORE: Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Milwaukee Rep favorite Ernst returns for a new spin on 'Christmas Carol'

Unlike Scrooge, the ghosts who haunt him and bring about his redemption are large, expansive spirits. Mark Corkins is the standard by which I measure all Marleys. Yes, he has the deep voice and brings the thunder. But he also channels a sorrowful agony that is Shakespearean.

As the sparkling Christmas Past, Kevin Kantor glides across the stage and through Scrooge's childhood. Todd Denning's Christmas Present has more bite than some portrayals of this spirit — perhaps that's Dickens the social reformer peeking through the bonhomie. Both ghosts are proto-Jedis, using the Force to halt Scrooge in his tracks, and turning to the audience for its blessing to move the story forward. Jamey Feshold's Christmas Future doesn't need to speak to leave Scrooge cowering on the floor.

The Rep's quality casting of secondary roles results in shining moments for other characters, like the bitter denunciation of Scrooge by Mrs. Cratchit (Rána Roman). As Tiny Tim, 8-year-old Lainey Techtmann sings a solo, drawing immediate applause from the audience.

Ernst never takes a beat off: I hope the Rep is paying for his whirlpool on the two-show days. As he tours the wreckage of his life with the ghosts, Ernst shows us the emotional work Scrooge is doing in his face and posture. His character's rapt attention makes the speed of his conversion more believable.

Clements' staging emphasizes the social environment that Scrooge is distancing himself from — lively parties, busy streets, big families. The miser's sin is not only personal, it's communal.

I wish Scrooge were so old-fashioned a character that I would have to labor to explain him to you. But when people worship stock prices as the most important value, when they fear the "undeserving" poor more than rapacious speculators, Scrooge is never far away.

In one of the play's most difficult moments, Denning's Christmas Present introduces Scrooge to the distressed children Want and Ignorance, warning Ebenezer to fear the latter most of all, "for on its brow I see that written which is Doom." Spend a random hour on social media and you'll see that Ignorance is still going strong.

Milwaukee Rep recommends this production for people 6 and older. (Make sure your first- or second-grader is comfortable with occasional loud noises, flashing lights and the concept of ghosts before bringing them.)

Contact Jim Higgins at jim.higgins@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jhiggy.

If you go

Milwaukee Repertory Theater performs "A Christmas Carol" through Dec. 24 at the Pabst Theater, 144 E. Wells St. For tickets, visit milwaukeerep.com or call (414) 224-9490. For people 12 and older, proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 test required. Everyone is required to wear a mask.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Rep's 'Christmas Carol' a large-spirited, interactive thrill ride

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