By: Joseph Szalinski
Move over, Night of the Day of the Dawn of the Son of the Bride of the Return of the Revenge of the Terror of the Attack of the Evil, Mutant, Alien, Flesh Eating, Hellbound, Zombified Living Dead Part 2 in Shocking 2D, there’s a new mouthful of a title in town. Well, Butler specifically…Hobnob Theatre Company’s latest production, Bob Cratchit’s Merry Christmas Carol Sing Along & Variety Show.
The brainchild of cast member Deanna Sparrow and musical director Ken Smith, who wrote the book and music, respectively, and collaborated on the lyrics, this festive play reexamines a literary classic from another character’s perspective.
Original productions are the lifeblood of theatre. Sure, it is an artform that allows and encourages the perpetuation of a show, as great work should always be blessed with a sort of immortality, but theatre stagnates without new plays. Composing a script or a score is an impressive feat, but collaboratively creating an entire production from nothing is even more so. Especially one in which the characters do the same thing. While the narrative isn’t necessarily the focus, plot points are solid, dialogue is hilarious, familiar faces are further fleshed out, and lyrics are equally silly and ingenious. Clocking in at around an hour, this show breezes by and leaves audiences wanting to see it again. It could easily continue to be staged every year after this until it becomes a tradition in its own right.
Matt Leslie is wonderful as the titular Bob Cratchit. He, like the other performers, gets to show off his singing and dancing prowess, in addition to his acting. But unlike the other two, also gets to do some puppetry too. And no, no Muppets are involved. With a good voice, great comedic timing, and a clumsy charm, he adds dimension to a man who’s more than Scrooge’s mistreated employee or Tiny Tim’s dad.
In a role not relegated solely to the page, Deanna Sparrow also appears onstage as the wildly entertaining Emily Cratchit, Bob’s wife. Within that main portrayal, she also gets to be a cast of characters herself, many of whom give her a chance to really let loose, especially Gentlemime and Scrooge’s nephew, Fred. Such performances are not just a testament to her talent but also a reinforcement of the fact that the greatest part of being onstage is enjoying one’s time up there, which is most certainly the case here.
Philip Ball is wonderfully fun as Ralph Enscombe, an aspiring thespian/barkeep at the Nimble Goose Pub, where the show takes place. Full of plenty of energy and ego and chutzpah, he delights as the grandiose showman and proprietor. He’s a hilarious foil to the more wholesome dynamic of the other two, but he’s not without his own moments of heart. Utterly magnetic while simultaneously pairing perfectly with his costars, Ball terrifically rounds out the cast.
Musically, this play is fantastic. From backing numbers, to percussive stings after jokes, to general sound effects, the instrumentation elevates the onstage antics and masterful choreography by Laura Crago. One might mistake Jessica Sanzotti for a Hemingway with how she knows her way around the keys; Karen O’Donnell unleashes her inner Animal on the kit; and Jon Pincek expertly proves the bass is not a fish, even though it still has scales. All jokes aside, the three musicians are a brilliant complement. Ken Smith has masterminded a menagerie of music, composed of both holiday staples and new songs, with the former being an invitation for the audience to sing along periodically, provided the cue is given.
Set pieces are static and simple. For the most part, it’s just a black backdrop behind a table and some chairs. However, in concert with some awesome costuming by producer Elizabeth Smith, it’s all that’s needed to bring their world to life. Bob Ivory helms the technical aspects of the production, with assistance from Ken Smith, Phil Ball, and Trey Lorenzini.
This show is the perfect event to officially reopen the historic Penn Theater. Not only is it an absolutely marvelous venue, but the rebirth of a beloved cultural institution is exactly what Butler needs. Likewise, it proves how vital arts are to the community, particularly live theatre, which is having a bit of a renaissance as of late. No company exemplifies this as much as Hobnob, who have plenty of projects in the works that will really make an argument for why productions up north deserve much more attention.
Bob Cratchit’s Merry Christmas Carol Sing Along & Variety Show has a sold out run at the Penn Theater in Butler, PA on December 22nd at 7:30pm and December 23rd at 1pm and 7:30pm. For more information, click here.