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A Christmas Carol
Through Dec. 22
Theatre Downtown
$18; (407) 841-0083

On the big list of terrifying things that start with “C,” somewhere between “carcinoma” and “clogging,” falls the bane of every cynic’s holiday season: A Christmas Carol. Why, we exclaim, from the bitter bowels of our two-sizes-too-small hearts, must we endure another slog through the well-trod sentimental slush? What more can another polemical pageant of 19th-century spiritualist socialism really teach us? Won’t someone for chrissake drive a stake of holly down Tiny Tim’s warbling throat, or at least get him in a decent PPO plan?

But just when you’re feeling good and Grinchy, along comes Theatre Downtown, insisting
on reminding us of the true reason for the season. It’s the same lesson we learned from Cindy Lou Who and the Peanuts gang (and which future generations will glean from Shrek, heaven help them). Because this Dickensian cash cow isn’t really about frightening phantoms and filling seats – it’s about family. And no place in Orlando puts the “community” in “community theater” better than the cozy confines at Orange and Princeton. Just think of A Christmas Carol as an intergenerational family gathering at your gruff-yet-genial Uncle Frank’s house: His garrulous curtain speeches are as venerable as the Latin Mass and as comforting as a crackling fire. This is where folks gather to celebrate the circle of life and to coo at the achingly adorable pre-show children’s choir.

This production began years ago as a lean-and-mean adaptation by former Theatre Downtown familiar Christopher Rohner (curiously uncredited in the program), and the bones of that original script, which hewed closely to Chucky D.’s text, are still there. Over the years, the skeleton has been padded with added layers – as thick as Mrs. Cratchit’s figgy pudding – resulting in an epic spectacle that threatens to burst the intimate theater like an overstuffed goose. Director Frank Hilgenberg fills the three-stages-in-one set to the brim (designed by Aaron Babcock, whose Ghost of Christmas Present looks suspiciously like the Burger King with a brogue). Much of the additional running time comes in the form of song and dance, as the show has morphed into a semi-musical filled with traditional songs. The cast carries off their choral duties with more-than-competent caroling, soloist Rebecca Santiago sounding particularly crystalline (shame they’re smothered by a synthesized orchestra seemingly stolen from Mannheim Steamroller). Choreographer Stephen Pugh contributes a macabre “Dancing With the Damned” moment, along with sprightly old-country line dancing.

Nothing exemplifies the family feel of this production more than its star, Dean Walkuski. When I first started coming to Theatre Downtown, Dean was an offstage volunteer, always eager to lend a hand behind the bar or wield a broom. It’s been gratifying to watch him grow into an acting career, with memorable parts in Requiem for a Heavyweight and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof now under his belt. His effective Ebenezer emphasizes the role’s comedic potential, with mordant wit in the beginning and post-cathartic childishness at the end. The show has a few fabulously tacky flaws one could Scrooge about (an oddly glam-rock Fezziwig, overblown tinkerbell sound effects), but with a center this strong, it would be unseasonable to suggest this feels like anything less than coming home for the holidays.

The Magician’s Nephew
Through Dec. 30
The Darden Theatre
Orlando Science Center
$19-$25; (407) 514-2000

The Magician’s Nephew, the Phantom Menace–esque prequel to C.S. Lewis’ “Chronicles
of Narnia” series, just arrived at the Orlando Science Center’s Darden Theatre. The kid-friendly stage adaptation by Aurand Harris is the inaugural outing for the Gramercy Theatre. Their mission, according to director Dan Roche (of The One Man Star Wars Trilogy fame), is to produce not “kiddie theater,” but legit shows for the whole family to enjoy. Judging by this initial offering, they’re about halfway there. Youngsters will be entranced by the colorful kineticism, but their chaperones may find it uncomfortably uneven, particularly in the exposition-heavy first act, when much of the comedy arrives unintentionally via the earnest backstage crew.

As the story goes, precocious prepubescent Digory (Joseph Robillard) and his pal Polly (Chelsea Talmadge) are teleported out of dreary London to dreamy Narnia by the boy’s Uncle Andrew (Bill Welter), an obsessive occultist and potential pederast. There they encounter the icily imperial Queen Jadis (Meghan Moroney of Cupid & Psyche and Mamma Mia!) and the leonine Christ-symbol Aslan (Remember the Titans’ Tom Nowicki), while questing to cure Digory’s ailing mum.

The spectacle starts to soar in the second act, thanks to some ambitious Cirque du Soleil–trained acrobatics. And you can’t fault the performances either by the deliciously hammy pros or the commendably committed kids. Overall, the show struggles to achieve a level between Cats camp and Lion King–lite.

The villains of the piece are fond of proclaiming “great people are free from following common rules,” an ethos that may have unfortunately crept into this presentation, which suffers an excess of artistry at the expense of stagecraft fundamentals. This is obviously a well-funded company, with staff bios groaning with impressive credits, and copious fog and fiber optics on display. Despite any miscues, it’s great to see another opportunity for working actors spring up in town. As Gramercy finds their footing, I hope they remember this: Orlando audiences, far from being dulled by theme park theatricals, demand spit-and-
polish with their spectacle, and depth to their drama.

Whether or not The Magician’s Nephew is a hit, Gramercy’s coffers should be easily replenished by their February production, an obscure mega-franchise known as High School Musical.

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