Posted Online: Dec. 19, 2012, 10:29 am

New Scrooge musical captures poignance, joy

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By Jonathan Turner,

Doug Kutzli stars as Ebenezer Scrooge in The District Theatre's new musical, 'A Christmas Carol.'
Mark Ruebling plays the ghost of Jacob Marley in The District Theatre's new musical, 'A Christmas Carol.'

With so much Christmas music out there, how do you write a new, engaging carol? By penning a new "Christmas Carol" -- a fresh musical take on the beloved 1843 Charles Dickens classic, given a heartfelt, passionate premiere at The District Theatre.

The new spin is that a key character (Papa, played by Lonnie Behnke) is retelling the story of Ebenezer Scrooge years later, reading it to his daughter (Kayla Veto) at the upper left of the theater.He's a narrator, but in all other respects, director Tristan Tapscott's adaptation hews closely to the original novel -- complete with lovely, 19th-century style costumes by Lora Adams

In a program note,Mr. Tapscott wrote that he was "humbled by this epic tale," and he can't think of "any story that better teaches the meaning of the season." He and his supremely talented music director and composer Danny White were bravely undaunted by the fact that the familiar Scrooge story has been adapted into at least 11 musicals since 1974.

Mr. White wrote that the source material inspired him, not an attempt to write "Christmas-y" music. "After letting the themes and emotions of the book settle in, no other influence was needed," he said. His lush, romantic, bountiful score perfectly captures both the season's hope and wonder, and Scrooge'spervasive sense of melancholy and regret.

Mr. White often uses waltz forms in the songs, but they never feel repetitive. The opening "Joy of Christmastime" is beautiful, ecstatic and evocative, including frequent choral harmonies and a cappella singing.

The sentiments of this dramatic saga literally are underscored by Mr. White on piano, who often has appropriate background music under some of the dialogue. In future versions (as I'm sure there will be), I could definitely see a larger orchestra fleshing out the score; here we just have synthesizer, percussion, and one reed/wind player supplementing Mr. White.

Doug Kutzli gives a towering, heartbreakingly humane performance as Scrooge, thecurmudgeonly miser who hates Christmas -- and we learn why. He has lost his fiancee, his sister, and his business partner (who died on Christmas Eve).

In another revealing perspective on his character, Mr. White re-imagines Scrooge as a literal force of nature in "The Cold." A song of winter's bitter chill, he is the "cold that Christmas brings"; Scrooge is numb and feels nothing for anyone.It's a painful, searching meditation, and it sharply contrasts with the prior "Tim's Lullaby," a warm, gentle, yearning tribute by Bob Cratchit (James Fairchild) to hisTiny Tim (Regan Tucker), who is lame, but lifts the spirits of everyone around him.

Bryan Tank -- a strongly expressive District regular -- plays both Scrooge's nephew Fred, who tries in vain to get his uncle to enjoy the holiday, and a young Ebenezer, who falls in love, and later loses his girlfriend Belle.

Their gorgeous duet, "Be Mine This Christmas," does not come to a longed-for conclusion on its own, but serves as an interlude to a Christmas ball featuring four very graceful and civilized couples, in a classical-style waltz. Sung by Moline High freshman Olivia Lyman, Belle's light, delicate voice is overpowered by Mr. Tank; we could use more heft there. It does feature pretty harmony, and the extended group dance highlights great flute accompaniment -- soaring and weaving.

The scene where Scrooge isvisited by the ghost of Marley, portrayed with stark grimness by Mark Ruebling, is striking and features one of several artful lighting designs by Matthew Carney. Mr. Ruebling literally has a ghostly, gray pallor, is weighed down with chains, and frightens Scrooge, the first of many lessons during the story.

Somewhat surprisingly, Mr. White doesn't supply singular songs for each of the three spirits who visit Scrooge (colorfully embodied by Sara King, Joe Maubach, and Linda Ruebling), and reveal visions of his past, present and future. As Mr. Kutzli observes parts of his life in the shadows, we see vivid emotions in his face and manner. For example, as the company exudes Christmas joy, he subtly moves to the rhythm, wishing he was part of the celebration.

Scrooge sees the present at the Cratchit dinner table, and wants Tiny Tim to live. In "Song of Thanks," and later on, we hear the theme of God's blessings.

A waltz comes up again at the top of Act II, with an animal song led by Mr. Tank. The spirit of Christmas future (Ms. Ruebling) is a spooky figure all in black, with a hooded robe that covers her face. Scrooge is confronted with his death, and sings of regret, despair, poignance. Bob returns after visiting Tim's grave, and the profound loss of a child took on extra intensity given this was the same night as the Connecticut school massacre.

The innocent, optimistic Tim reminds us how to live, to never look back, and as hismother, Dolores Sierra delivers a powerful, inspirational "Keep Moving On," right after Mr. Fairchild's tender reprise of the lullaby. Mr. White has a clever line here, "When the pain is too much, he'll be your crutch."

Scrooge becomes helpless, wailing at the end, promising to change his ways, and off-stage vocals add to the drama. Mr. Kutzli is transformed as the old man is overjoyed at his second chance, sharing newfound holiday affection and generosity. Scrooge is finally happy, and the surging harmonies and full chorus close the show triumphantly.

The theater last Friday night had the biggest audience I've ever seen in that small venue, and the anticipation was electric. Congrats toMr. Tapscott -- the tireless District artistic director of the District -- and Mr. White -- music director for scores of Harrison Hilltop and District shows -- for a new holiday love letter with lots of promise.

If you go

-- What: "A Christmas Carol" (new musical by Tristan Tapscott and Danny White).
-- When: Today through Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m.
-- Where: The District Theatre, 1611 2nd Ave., Rock Island.
-- Tickets: $15, available at (309) 235-1654 or