As we turn the calendar from November to December, frequent theater-goers are routinely tempted by a great many renditions of – and variations upon – the Charles Dickens classic “A Christmas Carol.” This year Arena Players is offering a gem from the latter category: “Christmas is Comin’ Uptown,” a revival of the musical by Phillip Rose, Peter Udell, and Gary Sherman.
Here, the familiar story is reset from 19th century England to 1970s Harlem. Ebenezer Scrooge is a slumlord, with Christmas Eve plans to hike the rent at his apartment house, shut down a children’s rec center, and even close a neighborhood church. When local leaders come to his office to protest these actions he’s armed with slogans: he tells the apartment super “If they don’t pay, they don’t stay”; repeating the mantra for the displaced kids: “…they don’t play” and congregation: “…pray” (public policy based on catchphrases is nothing new). His bookkeeper Bob Cratchit (Dominic Gladden) shivers at his desk while Scrooge counts and kisses his cash.
Victoria V. Jackson’s costumes and Bruce Henderson’s musical direction add really lovely elements to this fun, heartwarming, family-friendly holiday show.
That night, Scrooge is visited by his late partner, the “one man chain gang” Marley (Anthony L. Moon, Sr.), and the familiar Ghosts of Christmas Past (Brandon White), Present (Maytwone Ross-Brown), and Future (Dr. Anthony Brown). In his past, he encounters the love of his younger life, Mary (also Ross-Brown), and the pair delivers a wonderful duet with “What Better Time for Love”.
Mary then guides him to the present-day Cratchit household, where the family joyfully prepares for the coming holiday despite their privations. When Scrooge sees Tiny Tim’s (Carter Harrison) handicap he begins to warm, in the manner of the Grinch’s expanding heart. Optimism for Scrooge quickly turns to dread, however, when the black-robed Future takes over the tour – showing him first Tim Cratchit’s and then Scrooge’s own funerals. A hilarious, sarcastic eulogy of Scrooge is followed by the full cast’s “One Way Ticket to Hell”, foretelling Scrooge’s next journey. But as we know, Ebenezer wakes up. It’s Christmas morning. Lesson learned and no time lost, he frantically rings a local Chinese restaurant and Jewish deli to order food anonymously sent to the Cratchits. By the time he arrives there in person, the entire neighborhood has gathered to share the mysterious feast. Tim will have his surgery, the tenants’ rent will be halved rather than doubled, the rec center will receive new playground equipment, and Scrooge himself is “Born Again” in a rousing, final song.
Gregory Hines starred in the 1979 Broadway original, and at the Playhouse it’s Benny Pope manning the role. Pope is large and in charge, earnestly belting out numbers like “Somebody’s Gotta Be the Heavy” as the evil, pre-transformation Scrooge, and “Have I Finally Found My Heart” as the morning-after version. Throughout, his intensity is delightful. Evil Scrooge is imbued with a sinister laugh and New Scrooge with a childlike wonder.
Directing the production is Tamba Giles. Familiar to Baltimore audiences for his portrayals of the late Luther Vandross in “Luther,” Giles makes his directorial debut. He does very good work with a large cast, varying widely in age and acting experience. Giles keeps the action humming along, with help from Choreographer Mari Andrea Travis. Victoria V. Jackson’s costumes and Bruce Henderson’s musical direction add really lovely elements to this fun, heartwarming, family-friendly holiday show.
Running Time: 129 minutes with one intermission.
“Christmas is Comin’ Uptown” runs through December 15, 2019, at the Arena Playhouse, 801 McCulloh Street in Baltimore. For tickets call (410) 728-6500 or click here.