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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, April 24, 2014

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Craig Wallace and Christopher Donahue star in "A Christmas Carol," now showing at the Pabst Theatre.
Craig Wallace and Christopher Donahue star in "A Christmas Carol," now showing at the Pabst Theatre. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

Even after 38 years, "A Christmas Carol" finds a fresh take on Scrooge

Scrooge is a name, of course, but it is also a word.

When dad won’t pop for tickets to some concert, he may be called a Scrooge. If mom says you are not going to an indoor water park on Christmas Day, kids may say, "Don’t be such a Scrooge."

We all know what a "Scrooge" is: a bitter, hateful penny-pincher with not an ounce of fun, joy or charity in his cold, cold heart.

Well, watch your opinion change if you are lucky enough to see the Milwaukee Rep’s 38th consecutive production of that classic holiday tale, "A Christmas Carol," at the glorious Pabst Theater.

This Ebenezer Scrooge, under the direction of Aaron Posner and the amazing acting of star Christopher Donahue, is a man trapped by what seems expected of him, while denying the deeply buried but also deeply remembered heart of a wondrous and wide-eyed child.

The Scrooge in this production is a stunning and surprising marvel to behold. Nobody ever thought anything good about Scrooge. Donahue reveals that all is not exactly as it seems and that there are real emotions lurking just below his surface, emotions that would shock his world and change the self-portrait he has carefully drawn.

For the first time in my years of reading the classic Charles Dickens book and seeing the play, I was struck by the key contrast in the drama and comedy. You have Scrooge on one hand and the guileless Bob Cratchit on the other. They are diametrically opposed human beings, one who owns the office and the other who just tries to warm it up a little bit.

You get the sense of this dramatic conflict early with Scrooge mocking Cratchit as he toys with his pay, just for the sake of being the ass he thinks he should be. And then, at the Cratchit family Christmas Eve dinner, Bob Cratchit shocks his wife and children by proposing a toast to Scrooge. It is the ultimate act of both emotional and intellectual charity, and stands in stark relief from the humbug of Scrooge.

To make this whole thing work for two hours, you need two actors who have major league chops.

Donahue is clearly at the top of the heap. His role is excruciatingly demanding, physically and equally so emotionally. In the world of sports, when you see a magnificent performance – a Michael Jordan performance, for example – you say he left it all on the field. Of Donahue, it can be said that he left it all on the stage and in the audience. He held nothing back. You got the sense that when the play came to a warm and tender end, he had given all he had to give. And we appreciate that.

Jonathan Wainwright, a local actor who continues his steady rise, has a much subtler task as Cratchit than Donahue does. But Wainwright is impressively expressive in his love and passion for his children, his family, his world and yes, even his skinflint boss. Wainwright is a gracious actor whose every move has meaning and whose clarity of language make him an equal force to Donahue. The interplay between the two in the imagination of the audience is gripping.

"A Christmas Carol" is a chestnut for the Rep, but it always seems to remain fresh and sparkly, with a full spirit of the holidays on wonderful display. It’s been called a story of human redemption, but this production makes it more about realization than redemption.

The cast of adults and children are marvelous with wonderful costumes by Martha Hally and equally special sets by Marjorie Bradley Kellogg, the scenic designer.

With music, dancing, smiles, heartbreak, hope, joy, sorrow and – especially important and surprising – a great deal of humor, this play has something for everyone.

There are a number of highlights in this performance, including the presence and singing of Melody Betts as the Ghost of Christmas Present and the duo of Jonathan Smoots and Jim Pickering as Mr. Fezziwig and his stunning, if slightly out of shape wife, Mrs. Fezziwig. Now, these are laughs.

As he faces the Ghost of Christmas Future – now in full blown rejection of the man he has become – Scrooge asks the question so many of us ask all the time, especially as the holiday season arrives and the old year departs.

"If I change my course," he pleads, "might I not change my end as well?"

And the answer is most certainly yes. For Ebeneezer Scrooge and for all of us.

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