CENTERVILLE — When I first arrived at the Connie Leishman Performance Hall at the Centerpoint Legacy Theater Complex, I was greeted by a lovely woman who flitted around and twittered at all the audience members as we found our seats and got settled. “Just sit anywhere you like, deary. We’ll be getting started at any moment. Thank you ever so much for coming. You won’t regret it!” I wasn’t sure who she was. An usher? An assistant stage manager? An errant women’s leader from a local congregation? At any moment I expected her to ask someone to open with prayer. The English accent was a bit suspect, but I didn’t want to rudely assume that she wasn’t truly British. As it turns out, I was more or less correct on all counts. She was in fact Mrs. Phoebe Reece (played by Carol Thomas), one of five characters who together make up the Farndale Avenue Dramatic Society, and their self-appointed leader. Apparently the Farndale Avenue ladies have been putting on shows for a long time, and they favor the old classics over newer fare. Their past prolific efforts (all authored by the writing team of David Gillivray and Walter Zerlin, Jr.) include The Mikado, a murder mystery, and a sci-fi offering, among others. Even the venerable old Scottish Play has not escaped their eccentric brand of thespian interpretation, among several others.
On this particular evening, the Dramatic Society was presenting that old holiday chestnut, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, and Mrs. Reece assured the audience that we were in for a treat! Not like those “other” theaters that put on the same tired version of the story year after year. No! We were in for something really special! Ebenezer Scrooge as only the Farndale Ladies could play it… just as soon as the rest of the cast arrived. There seemed to be some sort of trouble with traffic, or a broken down car, or something equally unfortunate. Mrs. Reece vamped valiantly, messing about with microphones and lecturing the stage manager (Daniel Garner), and harping on poor Gordon (Brian Hahn), the token male in the Society, in particular. At one point she attempted to entice members of the audience to step in to play various roles. No obstacle was too great for Mrs. Reece to overcome. The show must and WOULD go on!
At length the rest of the cast appeared, to the considerable relief of a few gentlemen in the audience who were finding it difficult to resist Mrs. Reece’s recruitment efforts, and the audience was introduced to the rest of the troupe. Thelma (Melanie Joy Kieffer) would be portraying Scrooge tonight. Felicity (Katie Paul) would play several roles, including Scrooge’s sister Fanny and her son Fred, pointing up their remarkable resemblance. And last but not least, Mercedes (Shannon Wilson) shuffled on in a neck brace and achingly slow gait, bravely soldiering on and determined to do the show despite some debilitating injuries. The character of Mercedes could easily have become tedious and annoying, but Wilson handled the comic timing so deftly and well that she ended up being my favorite of the entire cast.
The director Todd Wente kept the play moving along fairly well; it was certainly entertaining show, if not terribly surprising. The script is full of old theatre gag standbys: falling scenery, missing script pages, malfunctioning props, late entrances and in-fighting among the cast members that spills out onto the stage via microphones left on after actors exited. Gender-bending added to the fun and confusion, with Mercedes taking the part of Bob Cratchit and Gordon playing his wife Mrs. Cratchit. A full grown man in a dress is always funny . . . almost as funny as a middle-aged woman playing crippled young Tiny Tim. However, Act Two suffered from an unnecessary intermission, which bogged the timing of the comedy. Add to that an odd episode of charades, followed by carol singing with the audience, and a painful rendition of The Nutcracker, and suddenly I was completely lost about the nature of the show. It turns out it was all an elaborate set-up for an extended audience participation gimmick, which ended up with a good-natured male audience member in drag onstage. But despite some challenges, and the lack of fresh material, Wente still manages to craft a show that was quirky and quaint, and potentially endearing. The pacing dragged a little at times, and gags that should have been side-splitting earned smiles instead of guffaws. Yet the Dramatic Society members marched bravely on, with poor Mercedes bringing up the rear, always 10 seconds late and never quite sure what was going on.
The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen’s Guild Dramatic Society’s Production of A Christmas Carol has some great potential, and despite some clear shortcomings, I enjoyed the performance. But I don’t feel as if Wente and the cast has mined all the humor to be found in the script. Perhaps their pacing and comedic timing will tighten up as the run progresses. But there were some great moments. According to Mrs. Reece, everyone has seen A Christmas Carol a million times and is ready for something new. The pendulum is swinging of late against the old holiday standbys, and this is but one alternative available for those who would rather stab their eyes out than go see another vanilla show taking place in Dickensian England.