A favorite holiday tradition has come to Toby's Dinner Theatre of Columbia for the first time in a musical production of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol."
Toby's has chosen the version by Oscar-winning composer Alan Menken, known for his work in Disney films, with lyrics by Lynn Ahrens of "Ragtime" fame. The show ran for a decade of holiday seasons at New York's Madison Square Garden, where it consistently played to capacity audiences.
Menken's music brings an upbeat quality to Dickens' familiar tale of stingy, nasty Ebenezer Scrooge, who is visited by several ghosts on Christmas Eve to bring about his transformation by Christmas Day. More relevant to contemporary tastes, this fast-paced version is suitable for all, from grandparents to children.
Toby's production has whirlwind-paced, masterful staging by Helen Hayes Award-winning director David James, who builds suspense in spooky scenes where ghosts emerge out of fog or skeletons pop up unexpectedly from Scrooge's bed to frighten him and us. Perhaps none is so frightening as the ghost of Scrooge's former business partner, Marley, who appears in chains to persuade Scrooge to change his ways to avoid a similar fate.
In contrast are joyous scenes such as those from young Scrooge's past Christmases, when he was happily entertained by generous Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig. Toby's in-the-round space seems to expand in James' use to include bustling crowds in London streets, rooms in Scrooge's home and, most effectively, a raised alcove that creates a realistic humble home for Scrooge's beleaguered employee, Bob Cratchit, and his family.
A major requirement of any worthy "Christmas Carol" production is a fine actor as Scrooge, and Toby's has a great one in David Bosley-Reynolds, who notes in his program bio that this is his "third time around as Ebenezer, having played him twice at Toby's Baltimore." Apparently, the third time is the charm, as Bosley-Reynolds summons meanness as curmudgeonly Scrooge, rudely brushing aside strangers' holiday wishes and responding to charity representatives' solicitations for the poor by saying, "Are there no workhouses? Are there no prisons?" Bosley-Reynolds scowls, sneers and sings with notable feeling, harshly proclaiming his detachment in "Nothing to Do with Me" and coming off as movingly reflective in "Abundance and Charity." Scrooge is finally transformed after learning to celebrate Christmas as he sings "Yesterday, Tomorrow, and Today" glowingly.
As Cratchit, director James conveys earnestness, patient restraint and love for his family. James' Cratchit is wistful in his "Nothing to Do with Me" duet with Scrooge and especially moving in a later duet, "You Mean More to Me," sung with his beloved son, Tiny Tim, well-played by T.J. Langston, making his third appearance at Toby's.
Among the series of ghosts to visit Scrooge, the most formidable may be Marley, fearsomely played by Andrew Horn, whose imposing presence and powerful voice make him a worthy instructor in "Link By Link" to warn Scrooge to curb his avarice or wind up in his own heavy chains of greed.
As the Ghost of Christmas Past, Heather Beck is a delight as she leads Scrooge on a journey to his youth, her lovely voice soaring in "The Lights of Long Ago" and the touching "Remember" as young Scrooge (Matthew Greenfield) confronts his love, Emily (Elena Crall).
A favorite scene is the wonderful warmth of "Fezziwig's Annual Christmas Ball," featuring the always reliable Jeffrey Shankle as Fezziwig, with Crystal Freeman as Mrs. Fezziwig brightening the warm festivities and adding sparkle to the energetic dance ensemble.
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Ray Hatch lends sly charm to the Ghost of Christmas Present in "Abundance and Charity." His bright singing adds to the joyous scene put on by the dance company.
Julia Lancione brings exuberance and her notable vocal talents and dance skills to her role as the Ghost of Christmas Future. Lancione is also noteworthy as the Blind Hag, who fearlessly confronts Scrooge to warn him to mend his ways.
After choreographing the two earlier productions of "A Christmas Carol" at Toby's Baltimore location, Laurie Newton lends her skills to the Columbia show.
Music director Pamela Wilt conducts a skilled group of musicians in live performances.
"A Christmas Carol" is captivating family entertainment that is vividly brought to life in Toby's production, which delights visually, thanks to the set design skills of David Hopkins and the work, including brilliant costume design, of associate artistic director Lawrence Munsey.
Last Sunday's matinee performance was a sellout, so it is advisable to order tickets promptly.
Toby's Dinner Theatre presents evening and matinee showings of "A Christmas Carol" through Dec. 29. Tickets may be ordered by calling 410-730-8311.