I consider myself very fortunate. As a theatre critic, I have the opportunity to see all sorts of theatrical productions. I’ve reviewed everything from Broadway tours, to regional powerhouses, to local professional venues, to community theatres, to schools and park districts.
And, I’ll tell you something. It’s not always the Broadway performers that impress me the most. It’s not that they aren’t talented. Of course, they are. They’ve reached the top echelon of their profession. But that’s something that you expect when paying for tickets in the Broadway price range. Sometimes it’s the up-and-coming performers I run across in out-of-the-way theaters that impress me the most.
From school productions to professional extravaganzas, each medium has their own charms. It would be unfair to judge a community theater production by the same standards as something you’d see at the Goodman Theatre or Steppenwolf Theatre. But the one thing that all performers, from amateur to professional, can be universally judged on is their commitment. How hard someone tries is important.
Any athlete that gives Olympic level effort can be considered an Olympian in my book. The same rule applies to theatre. I will always be the first to applaud any actor, writer, director, or other creative personnel who shows me they are giving 110%.
Writer/director Jeff Cook has repeatedly proven himself as both talented and hard working throughout the northern suburbs of Chicago – particularly McHenry County. Performers enjoy working with him, and audiences enjoy the productions that he helms. I make no secret that I am a Jeff Cook fan.
Theatre 121 is a community theatre based out of the historic Woodstock Opera House in rural Woodstock, Illinois. It’s a small community that draws talent from the neighboring suburbs as well.
Running November 18 through December 4, Theatre 121 is presenting the world premiere of Jeff Cook’s original adaptation of A Christmas Carol. For this fresh take on the Charles Dickens classic, Cook set out to fix some of the plot points and character attributes in many traditional versions that haven’t aged as well as others. And, to give the story a fresh perspective, the script gives us a female Scrooge and a female Cratchit.
However, don’t think of this new version as simple gender-bender stunt casting. Cook has created well developed characters. Elizabeth Scrooge, for instance, isn’t a miser because she is greedy like the traditional Ebenezer Scrooge.
Instead, Cook gives us a woman who has had to fight and scratch to survive as a businesswoman in a man’s world. And the sacrifices she has had to make to stand on her own as an independent woman have created this miserly disposition. Elizabeth Scrooge is not motivated by greed; she is motivated by pain.
Similarly, Alice Cratchit is not just Bob Cratchit with a bonnet. She is a young widow who has been left to raise a considerably large brood of children with only the help of her mother. Again, Cook gives us a strong female character that audiences can admire.
When writing the script for A Christmas Carol, Cook was very committed to creating authentic female lead characters. To do so, he sought out the expertise and feedback of a number of strong and accomplished women, each of whom has faced and conquered their own struggles. His incorporation of their input shows.
ALIVE ON STAGE
How Cook’s script is brought to life by his troupe of passionate performers is an example of what community theatre should really be about. The production features a cast of people of a wide variety of talent levels and experience levels, representing different ages and pronouns. They’ve come together to all give everything they have to putting on the best show they can.
The success of the show rests mightily on the shoulders of Nicole Lapas, who deftly handles the challenges of creating the character of Elizabeth Scrooge in this world premier adaptation of A Christmas Carol.
Cook is very skilled at weaving comedic asides into his text, allowing there to be comedic moments without changing the story itself into a comedy. Lapas knows exactly how to handle the lines, getting the laughs they deserve without ever making her character comedic. And her masterful technique with dramatic dialogue is even more compelling.
Amanda Lauteri is the ideal Alice Cratchit for this story. Where fighting to be respected in a man’s world has hardened Elizabeth Scrooge, Alice Cratchit survives in the world of men without ever giving up her kindness and appreciation of the little things. Lauteri and Lapas really play nicely opposite each other.
This is far more than a two person show. The cast features nearly 30 actors. As I said, I am so impressed by the dedication of each and every one of them.
This version of A Christmas Carol actually switches up the order that the ghosts are typically seen in. Derrick Wilson is the first of the three spirits to visit Scrooge. His Spirit of Christmas Present is a youthful sprite cut from the cloth of Shakespeare’s Puck. I always enjoy Wilson as an actor, and he delivers another fine performance.
Marissa Snook is delightfully effervescent as the Spirit of Christmas Past. She has a winning smile that will make everyone in the audience feel right at home and ready for a good time. She’s bubbly to the core and simply glows with joy. She stands out as one of the best parts of the show.
The third ghost, the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come, is a silent creature like in other versions. She is brought to the stage by Kylee Jones, with a fabulous costume. In fact, Shannon Lee Day’s costumes are uniformly well done.
There is, of course, one other ghost in A Christmas Carol, that of Scrooge’s old business partner Jacob Marley. Veteran character actor Paul Lockwood gives us a Marley who is more human than that seen in traditional texts, but still with a dose of Cook’s trademark humor.
In addition to being the costumer, Day also choreographed several dance interludes in the production. There is one dance, done in reverse that is particularly impressive. It is extremely well executed by Maggie Liston and Elijah Freundl.
There is a large children’s chorus that is the epitome of cuteness. Skillfully directed by Kenzie Conrad, the children’s choir includes Autumn Skye Braxton, Ruth Dougherty, Vinny Falbo, Colin T. Graf, Mia Rose Kalinovic, Cannon “CC” Kunash, Evan Mai, Ani MacDonald-Gropp, Charlotte McMahon Thomas, Addyson Rebman, and Emily Reinhard. Emelina Kelm makes an endearing Tiny Tim.
Among the adults, Lynn Cotner stands out in the new role of Alice Cratchit’s mother and Matthew Lennon Stewart is quite charming as Scrooge’s nephew Fred. Also providing memorable moments in the adult ensemble are Jamie Lee, Rob Cunningham, Kim Freundl, Jake Heelein, Erin Liston, Rachel Nedza, and Tyler Schone.
Truly, though, it is Cook’s script that will bring a new level of cheer and meaning to the A Christmas Carol tradition. Indeed, the dialogue flows best when Cook uses his own words and ideas.
It really does take a community to put on a community theatre production. Production coordinator Karen Cook and assistant director/stage manager Val Gyorke preside over a small army of production personnel.
Providing their support off stage are Tracey Lanman (technical coordinator); Jason Clark (who shares scenic designer credit with Jeff Cook and also serves as set construction foreman); Justin Charles (properties designer/set dresser); Joel Bennett (sound designer); Christi Nicholson (specialty costumes); Becca Polk (who shares costume assistant duties with Karen Cook); Joanne Borck (costume alterations); Jeff Graf and Jackson Nielsen (set construction assistants); Elaine Cashmore (scenic artist); Barry Norton, Nielson, and Cashmore (set painters), Christy Sturm (official photographer), and Mike Frale (program coordinator with Karen Cook). The production’s impressive poster and logo design are curtesy of Downtown Photo.
Together this group of actors and production personnel have given life to Jeff Cook’s imaginative retelling of A Christmas Carol. It introduces new characters and updated recognition of our roles in the world and our responsibility to do good.
I commend this merry band of players for giving so much of themselves for the entertainment of others. They have a lot to be proud of.
A Christmas Carol plays Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays through December 4th at the Woodstock Opera House located at 121 W. Van Buren Street in Woodstock. For tickets call the box office at (815) 338-5300 or visit www.WoodstockOperaHouse.com.
Peace. Love. Trust.
Rikki Lee Travolta
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