Theater reviewer C.B. Goldsmith returned to review the UTEP theater department's annual production of "A Christmas Carol" this year. It will be performed again at 8 p.m. Dec. 21 and 2:30 and 8 p.m. Dec. 22 at the Wise Family Theatre in the Fox Fine Arts Center. Tickets are $12; $10 for seniors, military, UTEP faculty, staff and alumni association members and non-UTEP students; $9 for kids and UTEP students. Call 747-5118 or go to theatredance.utep.edu for more info.
By C.B. Goldsmith
Institutions are a curious thing. They are inherently powerful or they would not have lasted.
Having reviewed two powerful local institutions this past year, the UTEP Dinner Theatre and “Viva! El Paso,” I have thought often about how one approaches an institution — from behind the curtain and from in front of it. One wishes to honor the history, not tear down something audiences still love, but one also wants to honor the organic nature of the theater and the community as growing and evolving concerns.
Luckily, director Austin Savage has taken our Christmas institution of UTEP’s annual production of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” and powerfully re-invigorated it. I reviewed last year’s production and it was fine, but at a dress rehearsal last week I was not prepared for the life, energy and craft Savage’s company injected into this much-improved production.
This elevation begins the moment the lovely Jordyn Hunt and her soaring sweet voice open the performance in an enchanting carol. Abel Garcia immediately commands the stage as Ebenezer Scrooge, the miserly misanthrope who will see his life reviewed in a series of ghostly flashbacks and flash-forwards. Though we have been accustomed to smaller and more wisened portrayals of Scrooge, Garcia brings both a size and a formidable power to his revelation of this character we thought we knew. Garcia’s physicality, voice and subtle pathos reimagine Scrooge in remarkable ways.
On its own, however, Garcia’s performance could not have re-envisioned this work. He had huge help, beginning with his director, who not only improved every aspect of this year’s production but found a much-needed anchor in Brian Craig Ceely, who portrayed both the narrator, Dickens, and Scrooge’s long-suffering clerk, Bob Cratchit. Ceely gives Dickens’ depth, and his energy was a major component in the flow of the play, which could have been wordy without him.
His Cratchit was both sweet and had genuine profundity. He combined with the fine work of Megan Aizpuro as Mrs. Cratchit to give their impoverished family nobility amidst their glaring need. Ceely and Aizpuro have a pronounced chemistry and when added to the fine work of their children (including the adorable Elizabeth Gomez as Tiny Tim), their family remains the centered inspiration for Mr. Scrooge to redeem himself from haunted humbug.
And though Garcia and Ceely are the oxygen that powers this production, there are several contributors who, in lesser parts, are impressive, too. Jesse Marin as Young Scrooge and Emma Montes as Belle create a lovely and important scene of Scrooge’s look at “Christmas Past.” Adam Trzyna gives a heft and dramatic command to The Ghost of Christmas Present. Special applause also go to Dalton Gorden, who, as a last-minute replacement, was remarkably comfortable as Jacob Marley, the ghost of Scrooge’s long dead partner.
Another pronounced improvement was this year’s costumes by Crystal Herman. They were especially fine, lush and vibrant.
There is still work to be done. Without Dickens’ narration, the actions and dialogue can become muddled and confusing, particularly the events following Scrooge’s death in the “Christmas Future.”
This production can be a gateway theater experience for young or new audience members. It is important to make this play as accessible as possible. Sometimes it can be vaguely wordy.
I also think that the robotic “Ghost of Christmas Future” demands reinvention. It is a large mechanical prop that, though beautifully costumed this year by Herman, has seen better days. With advances in “Muppetry,” Julie Taymor inspired that stagecraft. With UTEP’s bounty of engineers and artists, this ghost might rally in the future.
I’d also like to urge UTEP benefactors to step up and create a better sound system for the Wise Family Theatre. This year’s special effects were uniformly improved from last year’s, excepting the sound of several of the ghosts who were miked. It is a shame to toss away this important dialogue when digital clarity is possible.
The theater itself remains a gem and, with red gels casting bold patterns against the back wall, this presentation was clearly an event. The potent acting, luxurious costumes and flexibly impressive sets shone Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” in a new light. It remains a vigorous must-see holiday institution, which, thanks to our many El Paso creators, leaves the future of theater and our holiday traditions in gifted hands.