The first line of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” reads ‘Marley was dead: to begin with,’ and yet from there unfolds the story of Ebeneezer Scrooge’s redemption: Jacob Marley appears, three spirits, ‘God bless us, everyone’ – all of it quite familiar. But what of the other crooked old coot whose return sets the story in motion? Painfully and eternally entangled in the chains he “forged in life,” Jacob must have been as bad, if not worse, than his old partner. So what happened in the seven years he’s been dead that inspires his mission to save Scrooge?
“Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol” at American Stage is here to tell that tale.
The musical, based on the 1995 script from Tom Mula (the same year Gregory Maguire’s novel “Wicked” hit bookstores)tells the Dickens story from Marley’s perspective. As Maguire does with the so-called Wicked Witch, Mula brings affecting humanity to a character often reduced to a two-dimensional caricature.
For whatever reason, that wasn’t enough for director Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj and the team at American Stage. The production relocates from Victorian London to a some sort of ‘80s steampunk-rock version of Victorian London, and there’s wonderful evidence of the “why” in the lobby display, but the proof is in the pudding. This pudding is a delicious, raucous and electric experience disguised as a holiday treat that would pack an emotional punch any time of year.
…a delicious, raucous and electric experience disguised as a holiday treat that would pack an emotional punch any time of year.
American Stage’s space is not tiny, but it’s intimate, which puts the action in your face, in alignment with the punk aesthetic. Carried by four actors in various roles who also trade off narrator duties throughout the performance, cast members Saren Nofs Snyder, Amanda Jane Snyder, Patrick A. Jackson and Amber McNew don’t have many moments to catch a breath. Even when one does disappear backstage for a few minutes, it’s to change into one of costume designer Jordan Jeffers’ meticulously chaotic creations.
Speaking of quick changes, the production takes a huge swing in its staging and could easily collapse into an overlong mess of frenetic whiplash and schmaltz if the pacing is off. Club kid dance routines transition into borderline cartoonish characters who – without warning – sock us with an emotional gut punch. There’s a lot to take in visually too, in scenic designer Phillip Franck’s set. Taken in all at once it looks a bit like a squatters den – graffitied, overrun with piles of stuff, severely disjointed, oddly shaped platforms – but nothing in this production is random. Much like the actors transform from one character to the next, every inch of the stage is carefully set so that it can transform from inside to outside, from the underworld to the world of the living, or from decades ago to today to Christmas yet to come.
Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol, American Stage, 163 3rd St. N., St. Petersburg. Through Jan. 2: Tues.-Sun., times vary. $45-$57. 727-893-7529; americanstage.org.