THE BASICS: For the holidays, the Paul Robeson Theatre has resurrected a flop Broadway musical of 1979—an all-black version of THE CHRISTMAS CAROL. UPTOWN, with its imposing cast of twenty-three (this includes four child dancers), plays weekends through December 18th – Paul Robeson Theatre, performed at 710 Main Street. The show, with its single intermission, runs about two hours and ten minutes.
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: No plot summary needed here. It’s A CHRISTMAS CAROL, updated to semi-modern times, and gussied up with about a dozen unmemorable songs (an unusually large number of which are reprised!). Think Broadway, with hints of gospel, swing and jive. Major story omissions are explained (?) by the fact that the show is only “loosely” adapted from Dickens’ beloved tale.
THE PLAY, THE PLAYERS AND THE PRODUCTION: Watching the Robeson company struggle with this piece on the cavernous 710 Main stage, it’s easy to see why it closed in New York after a measly 45 performances. There are the occasional flashes of wit and good humor, even the occasional pleasing song (“Somebody’s Got to Be The Heavy” is a nice “signature” number for the miserable, grasping pre-conversion Ebeneezer), but major characters and scenes have been lost in the process, and with them, many of the tale’s wonderful emotional pay-offs.
Latosha Payton’s mighty pipes wow us near the end of Act I, in a church gospel number
The part of Scrooge is woefully underwritten. Maybe Gregory Hines could cover up for this on Broadway (he was nominated for a Tony), but the Robeson’s Chalma Warmley is simply not up to the task. He gives it his best shot, but ultimately the lack of a strong, smooth, satisfying transition from the “bad” to the “good” Scrooge goes a long way toward dooming this ambitious project. Director Reginald Kelly has seemingly encouraged gross overacting in an effort to secure laughs. I must say, however, that the histrionics of Leon Copeland (Bob Cratchit) and several others did nothing to win this reviewer’s good will. There are a few fine voices on display, unfortunately all in supporting or decorative roles. Latosha Payton’s mighty pipes wow us (all too briefly) near the end of Act I, in a church gospel number. In contrast, the title tune, which opens the show and is immediately reprised, seems absolutely interminable. The two-man musical ensemble, highly amplified, is often in danger of drowning out the soloists. Inadequate and uneven mic-ing is a problem throughout the show.
Now for the good news: Excellent props and costumes. I don’t usually mention props, but these are conspicuous and most creative. The costumes by Annette Christian are cute, colorful and sometimes even witty (as with Scrooge’s nightshirt and nightcap, made with patterned, banknote emblazoned fabric). I’m giving this show an extra half Buffalo entirely on the basis of the fine work done in these two departments!
The set and choreography are passable, but no more. Part of the problem is what to do with all that stage space at the 710 Main Theatre! I’ll admit that I was tickled by the verbiage on some of the highly-paraded flats, which inform us of Scrooge’s myriad Trump-like ghetto enterprises. Scrooge’s Dental—what a terrific concept!
IN SUM: A brave attempt by the Paul Robeson people to do something a little different with a holiday staple. I sure wish that it had come out a whole lot better.
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!