At the beginning of René Piazza's A Christmas Carol: The Whole Story, the stage manager announces that some actors (most notably the nefarious Michael Sullivan) have failed to show up and so the show will have to be canceled. Luckily, there are members of the audience who volunteer to fill the vacant roles to the best of their ability. And so the show begins anyway, despite the fact that the writer, director and star, Piazza himself, has not been apprised of the change of cast.
This sounds like quite an elaborate set-up for the comic complications to follow and I would appear to be a spoil sport for having given it away. Except that what follows is such wild, free-form nonsense, I doubt if anyone in the theater could remember who were the "unprepared, improvising substitutes" and who were the regular actors. Oddest of all, it doesn't matter.
Basically, the show is ... well, how to put it? It's sort of a retelling of Dickens' tale, but (although waves of British accents occasionally wash over the cast as though the production was going through a patch of heavy weather) the story has actually been transposed to an apartment complex in New Orleans, and involves the other tenants as well. These include Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, the sister of the witch killed by Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf. Plus, a host of other less easily defined characters, such as the trio of black-clad maniacs who run on stage and go berserk whenever the number 10 is mentioned.
While I can't say what it was that drew the fairy tale characters into the play, I can report that their chaotic dilemmas were a great hit with a lucky trio of little kids who were in the audience the night I attended. And while this is not kid's theater, as such, it is the kind of thing kids would eat up -- like the Three Stooges or the Marx Brothers or any of the inspired knock-about silliness of that vintage.
Not only does the story take place in New Orleans (and involve fairy tale characters), but it begins in the 1950s and spins off briefly into the groovy psychedelic '60s, for a glimpse of Scrooge's courtship. Don't ask me.
Some people are natural clowns. René Piazza is a prime example. He's just funny. He's funny, even when he's trying to be funny with a joke that's too weak or too obvious -- when, by all rights, the audience should be cringing and writhing with a terminal case of Japanese disease.
Japanese disease is a complaint I came across in a newspaper article about ethnic afflictions. The idea was that there are certain forms of malaise that are restricted to certain cultures. For the Japanese, with their acute sense of prestige and of shame, nothing is more horrible than watching someone attempt a performance they aren't up to pulling off. Where we would call for a hook, the Japanese die a thousand deaths of sympathetic shame and embarrassment.
Piazza's supreme gift is that, in his presence, we are all inoculated against Japanese disease. This an exhilarating, though somewhat bizarre, experience. And I think the reason A Christmas Carol: The Whole Story is celebrating its 10th consecutive year of seasonal performances (still pulling in an enthusiastic crowd of "Carol groupies") has to do with the joyous feeling that nothing can really go wrong on stage. By the same token, it must be admitted, nothing goes terribly right, either. In fact, the sacrosanct distinction between "laughing with" and "laughing at" is deliberately and outrageously violated.
While Piazza is stage center for most of the play, he has surrounded himself with an appealing and talented supporting cast. There are nearly 50 roles (some of these are momentary -- like the hula dancers who materialize because of a misunderstood phrase). So the 15 actors do double and triple duty.
The Christmas spirits turn out to be two in number: a cowboy, who looks like a rodeo trophy come to life (Edward Simon) and a sort of chanteuse cum Dexedrine addict (recently escaped, I take it, from an asylum in Hades) brought to life with vim and verve by Mary Lee Gibbons.
Among other stand-outs are a lovely, versatile Stacy Taliancich, a droll Andy Hebert and a risible Gina Porretto.
Most years, the old Yuletide pinchpenny is nearly ubiquitous. We usually have singing Scrooges, quick-change Scrooges, high-production-value, real Victorian Scrooges, etc. But this year, there is only one Scrooge. I guess we could call him the zany Scrooge. Maybe, with the way things are in the world these days, he's just the Scrooge we need.
- Scrooge (Rene Piazza, right) tries to get into the holiday spirit with help from Bob Cratchit (Daryl Cade, left) and the Ghost of Christmas Present (Mary Lee Gibbons) in A Christmas Carol -- The Whole Story.