Review: 'Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol' by Phoenix Stage Company at Clockwork

Nancy Sasso Janis

Everyone knows that Jacob Marley was dead to begin with…

In the mesmerizing production of ‘Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol’ running at the Phoenix Stage Company at Clockwork through Dec. 13, audience members are shown what happens after Ebenezer Scrooge’s old business partner passes over to the other side. In a very clever backstory that ultimately runs parallel with Dicken’s version (as ‘Wicked” does with ‘The Wizard of Oz,’) the playwright Tom Mula mixes the old with a bit of the new in this often funny and very moving story. Lori Poulin smartly directed the four men that make up the cast in this first production of the first season in the PSC’s new home in Oakville CT.  

It seems that Marley has been predictably condemned to a hellish eternity, complete with a private sprite-like creature to torment him. He is offered one chance to free himself and he takes it. In order to free himself of his chains, he must redeem his miserable former partner. Marley knows that it will not be an easy task, and the two acts take us on his journey of laughter and terror, as well as redemption for both Scrooge and himself. The lines seamlessly switch from third-person stage direction to actual dialogue in order to move the action along, making for a unique theatre experience. 

Scrooge was played by a founding member of the PSC, the one and only Ed Bassett. He has appeared in many a production with the company he serves as its managing director, most recently in ‘Almost Maine’ and ‘The Butler Did It!’ Here he gave a wonderful performance as both the eager young man and the miserly “Scrooge” that he becomes, without ever going over the top; in fact, my favorite part of his performance was when, after his transformation, he went around the perimeter of the stage wishing audience members a “Merry Christmas” by name. 

Michael Calabrese had previously run the lights and sound backstage at the Clockwork, but joined this cast onstage for the first time since high school to play the role of Bogle, the hell-sprite. Dressed completely in white and using a high-pitched voice, he captivated the audience with his fine performance as a spirit-facilitator and I look forward to seeing him in more community productions. Brian Elser, another young man who is usually behind the scenes at PSC, played a multitude of roles, sometimes two in the same scene, and pulled off every one of them. It has been inspiring to see Mr. Elser mature in his acting skills as he has worked his way through many comedies and whodunits (and one musical ‘Last Supper’) for this company. 

Which brings me to another member of the ‘Last Supper’ cast, Rob Richnavsky. This talented actor/fight choreographer has appeared in a long list of shows with Phoenix Stage Company and always gives a memorable performance. As Jacob Marley, he needed to be the driving force of this play and his Shakespeare training served him well in the role. 

Although he did not have quite as many characters to cover as Mr. Elser, he made the audience know when he was switching into a different ghost, even without a costume change. For me, Jacob Marley will stand out as one of Mr. Richnavsky’s most brilliant performances of his career. Next up for this actor will be the role of Barberson in the upcoming PSC production of ‘COPS,’ for which he will also be a member of the production team. 

Most of the afterlife and ‘ A Christmas Carol’ action happens on a minimal black set designed by Ms. Poulin, illuminated with magnificent lighting designed by Mr. Bassett. While I can imagine how the set would have looked on the intimate stage in Naugatuck, it was a much better fit for the unique stage of the Clockwork. There were some spooky, in the shadows scenes on the both sides of the stage that were very effective. No one is credited in the program with props because there were none, but the period costumes were done by Ms. Poulin and Mr. Bassett. Debbie Cryan served as stage manager. 

In his beautifully written message from the managing director, Mr. Bassett takes a look back at how far the Phoenix Stage Company has come in five years, and welcomes the followers of the Clockwork Repertory to the PSC family. ‘Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol’ is firmly on my highly recommended list and probably the best holiday piece I have seen this season. I am sure that it will place high on my year-end list of best plays as well. Don’t miss it!

‘Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol’ at the Phoenix Stage Company, 133 Main Street, Oakville. 
Running November 20 - December 13, Friday and Saturday night performances are at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday matinees are at 3:00 p.m. Call the box office: 860-417-2505 for more information or to reserve tickets.

Pictured:(from left) Brian Elser, Rob Richnavsky as Marley, Michael Calabrese as Bogle and Ed Bassett as Scrooge in 'Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol' at PSC Photo by Sharon A. Wilcox