AURORA | After more than 150 years of theatrical force feeding, we get it.
Every December, one Ben Scrooge is obliged to inhabit theaters across the country, turn from crusty curmudgeon to genuine champion of cheer and teach a new generation of tiny tikes that Christmas is about more than red velveteen and faux white whiskers. It’s about ghosts ‘n stuff, too.
We’ve heard the clanking of the chains and lock boxes. We’ve bahed. We’ve humbugged. And we sure as Fezziwig have been blessed. Every. Single. One.
Theatergoers have more than paid their debts to Chuckie D’s trio of specters and diminutive, alliteratively-named yung’un. It’s been time for a new face to take up the majority of holiday playbill covers for, well, what feels like ever. Who’d-a-thunk the answer would come in the form of a guy birthed from the very same pen as the undying miser himself?
Apparently, and thankfully, Tom Mula and the production team at Aurora’s Vintage Theatre.
Mula, a Chicago-based playwright, and the Vintage have officially given the season of peppermint and pine a new cardinal likeness — one wrought with seven years’ worth of subterranean decay and wrapped in an oddly adorable handkerchief tied atop his head like a 19th century Tupac Shakur.
Jacob Marley, the seemingly inconsequential narrative launch pad from Charles Dickens’ 1843 famed holiday novella, is the slight, gentle change of course holiday theater has been so desperately in need of for so very long.
Penned by Mula in the late ’90s, “Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol” is a behind-the-scenes look at just how Scrooge’s associate was able to orchestrate the soul-swapping transformation of the infamous penny-pincher. Replete with plenty of snappy confab and some topsy-turvy narration that flips between third-person musings and straight dialogue, the show is a cute, endearing pivot on Dickens’ holiday piece de resistance with tongue often, but not always, firmly planted in cheek.
At the Vintage, the cast is what propels this Christmasy creation toward triumph. Swathed in garb that appears kissed by the goggle tan lines of steampunk courtesy of costume designer Susan Rahmsdorff, the four-person team of Scrooge (Joey Wishnia), Marley (James O’Hagan Murphy), Bogle (Gina Walker) and the record keeper (Darcy Kennedy), is a steam-powered tour de force.
Murphy as the anxiety-riddled lead aptly controls much of the show with a fixed expression of fear and annoyance due to his sticky post-mortem task of thawing Scrooge’s charred heart. But, the triad of Wishnia, Kennedy and Walker brings refreshing balance to the bijou Bond-Trimble stage as well as to a script that lends itself to merely being a vehicle for the lead — it has been adapted as a one-man piece, too.
Wishnia portrays a bewitchingly hateable Scrooge whose frown-heavy salinity is a tasty theatrical morsel. Coupled with the fact that he looks like a dusty, crusty throw pillow thanks to some Rahmsdorff-created pajamas, Wishnia’s entire grouchy demeanor is preloaded with plenty of chortles. His bobbing, tasseled cap is a sublime exclamation point to the entire avaricious package.
But more than the pair of leading, Dickens-created tightwads, Walker deserves praise for her take on the jittery, cockney-flavored Bogle. A charming yet salty complement to the at-times whiny Murphy, Walker takes hints of Shakespeare’s tempestuous Ariel, Barrie’s Tinkerbell, and a few dashes of Tolkien’s Samwise to craft a magnetizing persona who checks all of the boxes for the archetypal guide. Her slew of passive aggressive terms of endearment for Marley — old muffin, old pustule, old pimple — land with just the right glaze of affection and brine.
Even with the help of such an adept cast, it must be said that “Marley” is meta as hell. The sometimes kaleidoscopic narration leads to more than a few squints and ping ponging pupils in an attempt to figure out exactly who is talking to who, why, and in what plane of reality. The purgatorial worm holes — and definitively Department of Motor Vehicles-nature of the afterlife — are more than a little reminiscent of Tim Burton’s take on similar concepts in 1988’s “Beetlejuice.”
But any temporary confusion is forgivable if the end result is a show as cheeky, as captivating and as fresh as the current production at The Vintage. With lighter nods to morality, character building and the spirit of Papa Noel than Chuck’s original Cratchity cast, “Marley” provides a welcomed, yet subtle change in narrative trajectory. And whenever there’s the prospect of a new, off-center spin on a grizzled, 172-year-old story, especially around the holidays, we’ll take what we can get.
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“Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol”
7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays through Dec. 27 at the Vintage Theatre, 1468 Dayton St., Aurora
Tickets: $24 in advance, $28 at the door; 303-856-7830 or online at vintagetheatre.org.
Vintage Theatre, 1468 Dayton St., Aurora