Growing up Jewish, I used to think Christmas was a humbug. I didn’t actively hate it (although I did, and still do, dislike the heavy marketing aspect of it and the way American society pushes it down everyone’s throats), but I also didn’t appreciate many of the Christmas rituals. That’s been changing over time; I’ve been increasingly liking the notion of the holiday as something that spreads goodwill (something that goes back to my favorite Christmas song, Peter Paul and Mary’s Christmas Dinner). As such, I thoroughly enjoyed the recent Christmas episode of “The Librarians”. I’ve also had a growing appreciation for Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (especially since discovering the wonderful concert version of the story). So it shouldn’t be a surprise that I increasingly found myself drawn to Zombie Joe Underground (FB)’s production of the story; the excellent reviews on Bitter Lemons didn’t hurt either. So last night, yes, we voluntarily went to see a Christmas-themed theatre production (does this mean Elf: The Musical is in my future? One never knows!)
First, however, a word about A Christmas Carol in general. I realized this morning one reason I’m growing to like the story — it doesn’t emphasize the religious aspects of the holiday, nor does it emphasize the commerical aspects of the holiday. Mind you the religious aspects are fine for those who are Christian; I’m not. As for the commercial Christmas, Stan Freberg and Tom Lehrer say it best. But what Dickens’ story emphasizes is the goodwill aspect of the holiday, and the importance of having a changed attitude towards one’s fellows. It emphasizes the importance of not worshiping the gods of business and money, but doing something good with one’s life. That’s a concept that resonates with me.
Next, a word about Zombie Joe Underground (FB) (ZJU), in general. This was my first time at the venue, although I’ve known about it for ages from Livejournal. The venue is truly a black box theatre, lacking even a conventional stage and conventional stage lighting (I think all the lights were parabolic reflectors; not a single Leiko). Yet the theatre performed there was remarkably creative, with an emphasis on the theatricality of the actors, not the sets or props. This is very refreshing to see, and a nice change of pace for our mix of shows. From what I’ve been told, and looking at the mix of past shows on the wall, the venue specializes in the creative and avant guard, not the traditional play or musical that might hit a traditional stage venue. They lean towards the macabre in a way similar to The Visceral Company (FB); but have a different approach towards production and staging. I do plan to keep a closer eye on the venue for future productions of interest.
What happens when you bring a production company like ZJU together with a classic Christmas story? You get something offbeat. Mind you, they don’t change the story (unlike my favorite version, A Mulholland Christmas Carol), although they do imperceptibly condense the story to under an hour. Rather, you get all the essential elements the story presented in an offbeat approach with actors that are truly having fun with it. I guess at this point I should provide a synopsis of the story, but if you don’t know A Christmas Carol — given all the myriad versions out there — then you have truly been living under a rock. So, for those living under rocks, click here.
You get a sense of the energy of this production from the start, when the “Steam Punk Chorus” comes out and starts singing a number of Christmas carols. I put “Steam Punk” in quotes, for the ZJU notion of steampunk is wearing goggles (even swim goggles) and corsets, and none of the Victorian mechanical inventions I would expect. The chorus is more macabre, with white faces, darting eyes, playful grabbing and sexiness (without exposure), and warped attitudes. I still can picture in my mind their reactions and playfulness with the tambourine one of the young ladies was playing. They are also — much to my surprise for a storefront theatre — quite strong singers. The voices of these seven actors are just remarkable — from the young man singing Ave Maria to the blend of all the women’s voices (especially the one with the tambourine). Truly a remarkable opening.
After the opening songs, the story of Scrooge begins in earnest. The retelling itself stuck to the traditional story; I found it difficult to identify much that was abridged. With the exception of the actor portraying Scrooge (Sebastian Muñoz (FB; Page)), everyone (including the director) played multiple roles and were not only switching hats, but costumes, wigs, makeup and styling constantly. This led to a form of theatre that emphasized the creativity and what the acting process brings to create the sense of place and character. You were transported to London in the 1800s through the performances in front of you, not the scenery or the sounds. There was also a ZJU sense of playfulness in the mix — the occasional pale face, the use of total darkness and flashlights, the occasional “steam punk” chorus aspect in the background. It’s hard to put into words, but the total overall effect just made the show really fun and different.
The performances also brought out a sense of joy. As always, I have trouble telling what came from the actors and what came from the director, although in this case the director was one of the actors (Denise Devin (FB)). This team of actors — and it is hard to single anyone of them out given the multitude of roles — were uniformly great. Those in the chorus were strong singers, and they all brought a form of maniacal energy to their myriad roles that it was just remarkable to watch them. I was going to try to give a bunch of specific mentions, but they would all seem to devolve around the same thing — they were great. A few things that stick in my mind: Scrooge’s energy and passion; the characterizations of young Scrooge (although how Scrooge went from being a young bald man to an older man with hair was astounding :-)), of his sister, of Mrs. Cratchet, the joy of the ghost of Christmas Present, the playfulness of Tiny Tim and Cratchet’s children, the joy of Fred — all were spectacular.
The acting team consisted of the following individuals: Jason Britt (FB) [Ghost of Marley, Bob Cratchit, Topper, Belle’s Husband]; Denise Devin (FB) [Ghost of Christmas Past, Present, and Future]; Courtney Drumm (FB) [Steam Punk Chorus, Tiny Tim, Carol Boy, Turkey Boy, Want, Belle’s daughter, Laundress]; Gloria Galvan (FB) [Mrs. Cratchit, Steam Punk Chorus (she was the one with the tambourine that I liked), Mrs. Fezziwig, Ms. Lacey, Charity Gentleman]; Sara Kessler (FB) [Steam Punk Chorus, Fan, Elizabeth]; Lara Lihiya (FB) [Steam Punk Chorus, Violin, Belle, Belinda, Narrator, Housekeeper]; Sebastian Muñoz (FB; Page) [Scrooge]; Kelly Rhone (FB) [Martha, Steam Punk Chorus, Charity Gentleman, Exchange Man, Guitarist, Narrator, Waiter]; Kevin Pollard Jr. (FB) [Steam Punk Chorus, Younger Scrooge, Undertaker, Narrator, Peter Cratchit]; and AJ Sclafani (FB) [Steam Punk Chorus, Fred, Narrator, Exchange Man, Fezziwig].
Turning to the technical — ummm, what technical? The credit for scenic design is listed as Angelia Weitzman (FB), but there was no scenery to speak off, other than a black box or two; the true scenic design came from her other credit — co-costume designer together with the director, Denise Devin (FB). Also working on costumes — specifically, special costumes — as well as the props was Jeri Batzdorff (FB). The costumes and props combined to give a wonderful scenic design of the imagination — a nice (and interesting) change of pace from the more realistic scenic design of the larger/more traditional theatres. Technical sound and lights assistance was by Steven Alloway/FB: there really was no additional sound, and the lights themselves were rudimentary — no Leikos, but a number of parabolic reflectors either with colored bulbs or gels, without the traditional lighting control bar. Still, Alloway and the other designers used what they had to best effect, and there were a number of times I noticed the use of the lighting to create a mood for the scene. Hence, kudos are in order for the lighting. Production Graphics were by Zombie Joe, who also produced the show. Musical stylings were by the Steam Punk Chorus. The production was directed and adapted from the original by Denise Devin (FB).
I do have one negative to add — not about the show, however. Zombie Joe’s really needs to improve its website. As someone who has an old website, I can recognize a website with an even older look — the blinking and the animation reminds one of the days of MySpace and all the blinking free sites. Zombie Joes would do good to find a volunteer who could revamp their site to provide more information on their shows and the theatre itself, in a style that is much more conducive to the modern web.
There is one more performance of the ZJU version of A Christmas Carol (FB) today at 7:00 PM. Tickets are available through tix.com, or in person at the theatre. Note that the show itself is under an hour.
Dining Notes: For dinner before the show we tried a new restaurant in North Hollywood, Yerevan Steak House. They are a few blocks up Lankershim from the theatre, about 3 blocks N of Burbank, across from Mofongos Puerto Rican (where we’ve eaten before). Yerevan is a simple Armenian kabob house, family run with a very family feel, and excellent food. I think we’ll be back.
Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience. I’ve been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.
Upcoming Shows: This was our last show of the year, unless I unexpected add something on New Years Eve. It’s been an interesting theatrical year — I’ll work on recap post next. As for 2015: January is filling up. The first weekend of January there’s no interesting live theatre, so I may go see the new “Into the Woods” movie. The following weekend brings two shows: “Serial Killer Barbie: The Musical” (FB) at the No Ho Arts Center on Friday January 9 and “An Evening with Groucho” at AJU with Frank Ferrente at American Jewish University on Sun January 11. The next weekend starts the Rep season with “Avenue Q” at REP East (FB) on Sat Sanuary 17. The following weekend is currently open (but I’m looking). January may conclude with the Cantors Concert on Sat January 31 at Temple Ahavat Shalom. February and March pick up even more, with “The Threepenny Opera” at A Noise Within (FB) on February 15, a hold for “Loch Ness” at the Chance Theatre (FB) on February 21, “The Road to Appomattox” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on February 28, the MRJ Man of the Year dinner on March 7, “Carrie: The Musical” at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts (FB) on March 14, a hold for “Drowsy Chaperone” at CSUN on Friday March 20, “Doubt” at REP East (FB) on Saturday March 21, “Newsies” at the Pantages (FB) on March 28, followed by Pesach and the Renaissance Faire on April 11. As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.