Review: 'A Christmas Carol' by NewArts

Nancy Sasso Janis

  • Connecticut Critic
  • Connecticut Critics Circle

"Scrooge would never think to help another human being because he sees no profit in it. How wrong he is. We as individuals and as a society gain by giving. What better message to offer this community at the holiday season?" - Michael Unger

Bethel, CT - NewArts is the performing arts side of a comprehensive program to help children gain confidence, inspiration and skills to rise above and go beyond even the most difficult challenges. The not-for-profit 1214 Foundation’s eighth production in four years, and their first winter production ever, is a beautifully adapted version of Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol.’ Michael Unger returns to direct and produce this celebrated production that he has directed at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton NJ from 2000 to 2015. It is a generous Christmas gift that this theatre and the original creative team gave to Newtown when they loaned them this magnificent production to launch at Walnut Hill Community Church in Bethel.

Executive Producer Michael Baroody, MD is the founder of NewArts and consistently stresses that the productions will always be of the highest quality. It is a lofty goal for his young performers and the adults who work with them. Yet, I have had the pleasure of seeing multiple performances of every single one of the productions and I have never been disappointed. It is perfect that this production runs through the anniversary of the 12/14 tragedy at Sandy Hook to gently remind us, as Mr. Unger writes, that “it is never too late to change and that we can all do more to help repair the world.”

So the complicated production was brought to Walnut Hill and much of the original set was installed by dedicated parents and kids over the past two months. A full third of it sits in storage, but what fit on the stage of the church is quite impressive. Fezziwig’s/Scrooge and Marley’s two floor offices and Scrooge’s convincingly haunted bedroom are two huge movable set pieces that are uncovered by two large white curtains that also serve as projection screens for wonderful black and white scenes. Ghosts were able to appear through the wallpaper and the doorknocker came to life. The talented group of local actors that work within the set rehearsed daily to bring the story to life and opening night was a testament to all of their hard work.

This version of ‘A Christmas Carol’ was adapted by David Thompson and stars James Ludwig as Ebenezer Scrooge. Mr. Ludwig is an 11-year alumnus of the McCarter production and is a colleague and friend of the director. I could totally see him as a member of the original cast of ‘Spamalot’ on Broadway and he seemed to be “overjoyed to return to 1840’s London.” His performance as Scrooge is a masterpiece and another generous gift to the Newtown community. The scenic design by Ming Cho Lee was adapted by Brian Prather and the original lighting design by Stephen Strawbridge was adapted by production manager G. Benjamin Swope. Kudos to technical director Jonathan Curns, UConn grad and technical director at NVCC Fine Arts Center, for pulling it all off. 

Music director was Sandy Hook music teacher Maryrose Kristopik and the music and lyrics for the few songs were written by Michael Starobin, with additional music and lyrics by Jeffrey Saver and Amanda Yesnowitz. The original music was fine, if not especially memorable, but the incidental music added much to setting the ghostly mood. The original choreography by Rob Ashford was nicely adapted by Jennifer Paulson Lee. The perfectly beautiful vintage costumes were designed by Jess Goldstein and adapted locally by Patricia Hibbert. Wigs and makeup design was by Carissa Thorlakson. The sound design by Brian Ronan was adapted by John O’Brien and included voices from around the theater and ringing bells that were appropriately scary. 

On opening night, the Mistletoe Cast performed; the Holly Cast will take the other half of the eight performances. Virtually all of the adult leads are members of both casts, with the children sharing their roles. Every one of them gave everything possible to their role and contributed to the excellence of the production.

In the present, John Michael Mackiewicz was a heartwarming Bob Cratchit. Shawn Allen did very well as Scrooge’s happy nephew Fred, while Renee Browne was his lovely wife Lily. Celeste Vodola was his housekeeper Mrs. Dilber. Joseph DeVellis was strong in the role of Jacob Marley, both alive and dead, and his appearance as the latter was an impressive one. George Mecca was an adorable Tiny Tim; he shares the role with Danny Stutman. Peter Cratchit was James Malin, who shares with Luca Terilli. Rita Schaffer and Deana Merchant were a riot as the solicitors Mrs. Bonds and Mrs. Stocks; Scott Fuss and Mr. DeVellis played their respective husbands. 

Lisa Bollacke was the loving Mrs. Cratchit. Gracelyn Mecca shares the role of little Belinda Cratchit with Elowen Kurjiaka and Susan Socci shares the role of Martha with Avery Siburn. Sophronia Scott was the jolly and magical Spirit of Christmas Present in a sparkly female version of the costume. 

In the Christmases of the past scenes, the role of Spirits of Christmas Past were played by Ava Baroody, Sofia Talluto and Reese Wheat, who share the roles with Anna Stutman, Katie Bisset and Lexi Bisset. Scrooge’s sister Fan was played by Lindsay Dievert, who shares with Sophia Zimmerman. Scrooge as a boy was Timmy Galer, who switches with Jimmy Hunter. Bob Williams was jovial as Mr. Fezziwig and Lisa Uffer was a whirlwind as his wife. Daughter Charlotte was played by Ashley Raymond, who shares with Maddy Oldham. The young man version of Scrooge is played by Scott Fuss in both casts, and Belle is Brianna Bowman. 

Moving into the future, Paul Bauman was Old Joe and Melissa Shohet was memorable as the laundress trying to sell to him. Bob Stanhope was the undertaker and Brutus Brown and Jonathan Sweeney managed the huge black puppet of the Spirit of Christmas Future.  There is also a large Young Ensemble, a smaller Adult Ensemble and a mighty Caroling Chorus that appeared before and during the performance. 

I was disappointed to see that the every seat in the church was not filled on opening night. Go experience ‘A Christmas Carol.’ December 10th @7pm, December 11th @3pm December 16th @7pm, December 17th @7pm December 18th @3pm, December 21 @7pm and December 22nd @7pm. Tickets will be available at the door, but I recommend getting tickets ahead online so you can choose your seat and avoid the line. All shows staged at Walnut Hill Church, 156 Walnut Hill Rd, Bethel, CT.