"The Millionth Production of A Christmas Carol," currently receiving its world premiere at Mountain View's Pear Theatre, is a darkly comic ode to/inside joke for theater people, by theater people. Written and directed by James Kopp (who's also a cast member and the designer of the set, costumes, lighting and sound), the show focuses on a Northern California black-box theater company begrudgingly staging a production of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" in a last-ditch effort to sell enough tickets to keep the lights on for another season.
Apparently, putting on a show as familiar and beloved as "A Christmas Carol" constitutes selling out, trading artistic integrity for much-needed funds.
The fictional "Christmas Carol" cast members (James Johnson, Ronald Feichtmeir, Michael Weiland and Ariel Aronica as Jim 1, Jim 2, Sam and Bobbie, respectively) complain and bicker amongst themselves. The long-suffering stage manager Kelley (Kelly Weber Barazza) tries to keep things on track while dealing with a sound-system on the fritz (or is it haunted?) and the death of her beloved pet. Artistic Director Fisher (Jennifer Sorkin Kopp, Kopp's real-life wife) must deal with her theater's financial woes, her troublesome cast, her own personal demons, a surprise visit from the company's founder Barbara (Lisa Burton), and working with the production's director Cooper (Bryan Moriarty), who happens to be her still-lovelorn ex.
Over the course of the show, in a vaguely Dickensian structure, Fisher is visited by characters from past and present with whom she observes the actions and conversations of the other characters. Things get supernatural when a wisecracking, bad-tempered ghost (played by Kopp himself) arrives to kill Fisher and accompany her soul to the great beyond. She's reluctant to leave the mortal realm, despite the ghost's assurance that the failing theater will be turned into a Starbucks or Jamba Juice in no time and that her dedication to it is foolhardy. Can she and her cranky crew come together through the healing power of theater to defeat her fate and learn the true meaning of Christmas/family/community/art/whatever?
Critic's note: I should mention that overdone or not, I adore "A Christmas Carol" and will read/watch/defend it infinite times, including parodies, so I had high hopes for this comic spinoff. Unfortunately, I don't think "A Millionth Production of A Christmas Carol" is destined to become a new classic.
While somewhat funny in moments, such as when young Jim 2 agonizes over whether or not his portrayal could be considered a "sexy Scrooge," or if such a thing is possible (Second critic's note: I would humbly direct the viewer to Michael Caine in "The Muppet Christmas Carol" and Vanessa Williams in "A Diva's Christmas Carol"), the production on the whole comes across as amateurish, both in script and performance, as well as uneven in tone. Many of the jokes simply fail to land, and Kopp's ghost character is bafflingly unpleasant. Michael Weiland actually gives the best and most appealing performance as Sam, the actor hired for his good looks rather than his talent, much to the derision of his fellow cast mates. Weiland as Sam, like the ostensibly brainless Scarecrow in "The Wizard of Oz," continually offers bits of sweetness and wisdom throughout, even as his co-workers heap derision upon him for being a handsome young man with a genuine enjoyment for his work while they struggle for their art and fight to get good parts.
Bobbie and Sam's argument over the merits of musicals struck me as cliche, and the cast's attempt at doing a scene "in their own words" to better connect emotionally with the story (which leads them mostly to swear at each other) is supposed to be humorous but wears thin almost instantly. Scrooge as originally written is plenty funny already. (It's hard to compete with gems such as "Every idiot who goes about with a 'Merry Christmas' on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.) Fisher and Cooper do have true affection for the real "Christmas Carol," and when Sam finally delivers a small dose of Dickens, we're reminded of the masterful beauty of his language.
My feelings about "The Millionth Production of A Christmas Carol" are not entirely "Bah! Humbug!", but the show could definitely stand for a heap of editing and fine tuning. Frankly, I'd rather watch another community production of Dickens, no matter how cheesy. Theater folks will probably enjoy many of the inside references to the stress of tech weeks, cheeky references to various shows and the trials and tribulations of trying to make art in a commercialized, profit-driven world. If nothing else, it helps remind us of all the little independent theater companies out there that are struggling to make ends meet, pouring their hearts, souls and wallets into their missions to create, enrich and entertain. God bless them, every one.
What: "The Millionth Production of A Christmas Carol.
Where: The Pear Theatre, 1110 La Avenida St., Mountain View.
When: Through Dec. 17 (see online for specific show dates/times).
Info: Go to the Pear Theatre.