Barry Kaplan, Jonathan Demar, and Jonathan Baldwinin A Gilbert & Sullivan Christmas Carol(Photo: James McNicholas)
Barry Kaplan, Jonathan Demar, and Jonathan Baldwin
in A Gilbert & Sullivan Christmas Carol
(Photo: James McNicholas)
Rest assured that Gilbert and Sullivan are not spinning in their graves, nor is Charles Dickens, over the new entertainment at the José Quintero Theatre. But all three may well be cocking their heads and saying, "Hmmm, what a curious idea!" In a program note, adaptor and director Gayden Wren bends over backwards to convince us that, although Dickens and G&S did not write A Gilbert & Sullivan Christmas Carol, they might eventually have done so if Dickens hadn't inconveniently died before a proposed collaboration could get underway.

This goofy bricolage was clearly a labor of love for Wren, artistic director of The New Punctuation Army and author of the new book A Most Ingenious Paradox: The Art of Gilbert and Sullivan. He's taken a bunch of classic G&S tunes, written new lyrics for them, and sprinkled them into A Christmas Carol. It's an exercise in "What if..." theater.

Wren is no William S. Gilbert, but he is a superb lyricist in his own right, with a fine understanding of how the master went about his work. Listening as he finds ways to fit Scrooge-related couplets into Sullivan's memorable, old tunes provides much of the fun of A Gilbert & Sullivan Christmas Carol. "Three little ghosts for Scrooge are we," sing the spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet-To-Come. Cleverly, Wren often matches the original lyrics as closely as he can. For example: Where Yum-Yum, Peep-Bo, and Pitti-Sing described themselves as "three little maids who, all unwary, come from a ladies seminary," Wren's spirits are "three little ghosts who, dark and scary, come from a local cemetery."

A Gilbert & Sullivan Christmas Carol works best at its most wicked. The out-and-out hit of the piece is Jim Luddy, as the Ghost of Marley, prancing hysterically through "I Am the Very Model of a Mystic Supernatural." The title phrase is rhymed tidily with "nomenclatural," and the lyrics proceed giddily apace as Wren replaces the Major General's self-congratulatory riffing with Marley's name-dropping tour of the underworld. Luddy is burdened with chains for this bit and surrounded by a shrouded choir of girl-ghosts who, with their black head covers and grim demeanor, look like a New York Times photo of Afghan women waiting to be liberated. Between verses, Luddy jerks his shoulders helplessly and moves in tight semi-circles, seeming to laugh along with the audience at the very idea of an otherwordly song-and-dance man who has a tune from The Pirates of Penzance in his repertoire.

If only the rest of the cast (and Wren, who also directs his own script) had as strong an idea of the show's proper tone. With elements of both a winking parody and an earnest valentine, this Carol hits some strange chords. When adorable little Jonathan Demar as Tiny Tim sings the last syllable of "God bless us, everyone" on an absurdly extended note, we're not sure if we're supposed to laugh. Though the emotional arc of A Christmas Carol is classically straightforward--man with closed heart has night of purgatorial self-reflection, opens heart--it's impossible to maintain the traditional tone of the tale when a bunch of G&S songs are thrown in from left field. Wren would have been well advised to take the full-bore satire route; in devilishly twisting the Carol while attempting to preserve its sentimental aspects, he has created something of a muddle.

There are other problems. The choreography of this production doesn't go beyond bobbing and occasional spinning. Production designer Janette Kennedy, working on the tiny stage area at the Quintero, doesn't deliver much in the way of sets. And then there's the performance of Barry H. Kaplan: His singing as Scrooge is tentative, and he often seems lost and breathless amidst the winding mazes of patter that Wren-after-Gilbert has constructed. Also, Kaplan's Scrooge goes soft too early. He's an old meanie at the start of the show, of course...but not quite mean enough, and this weakens his pivotal transformation. The supporting cast is generally stronger, notably Jonathan Baldwin, whose beatific smile, gentle demeanor, and Norman Rockwell cheeks give his Bob Cratchit just the right aura of a long-suffering Everyman.

For all of its flaws, A Gilbert & Sullivan Christmas Carol offers many pleasures, especially for those infatuated with the Victorian stylings of G&S and/or Dickens. This Carol may be clumsy, but it is cute and charming nonetheless. One of the best examples of its charm comes when young Hayley Chapple, as the urchin hired by the newly angelic Scrooge to deliver a Christmas goose to the Cratchits, lands a vaudevillian punch line. "They call me Cheapside Jackie. I'm named for my father," says the urchin. "His name was Jackie, I suppose?" ventures Scrooge. "No," comes the reply. "His name was Tommy, but he was a little on the cheap side."