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review

The cast of Dolly Parton’s Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol.Arts Club Theatre

  • Title: Dolly Parton’s Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol
  • Written by: Based on A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Adapted by David H. Bell, Paul T. Couch & Curt Wollan. Book by David H. Bell. Music & Lyrics by Dolly Parton
  • Director: Bobby Garcia
  • Actors: Cast of 15, including David M. Adams
  • Company: The Arts Club Theatre Company
  • Venue: Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage
  • City: Vancouver
  • Until: Jan. 2, 2022

The Christmas before the pandemic hit, a new holiday musical had its world premiere. Based on the Charles Dickens classic A Christmas Carol, but set in the Appalachian Mountains of Tennessee during the Great Depression, the show featured songs and music by Dolly Parton. Dolly Parton’s Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol premiered in Boston in December, 2019. Christmas 2020 was a wash, of course. So when the Arts Club Theatre Company in Vancouver announced that it would open its abbreviated 2021-22 season with the musical’s Canadian premiere, it felt like a gift.

Dolly Parton. Charles Dickens. Christmas. A return to a full musical theatre production after 20 months of pandemic hiatus. The full package.

Andrew Wheeler and David M. Adams in Dolly Parton’s Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol.Arts Club Theatre

Let’s start outside the theatre, on a rainy Wednesday night in Vancouver. Ten minutes before the advertised start time, the line on opening night was still wrapped around the corner and way down the block. Before taking the long walk to the back of that line, I stopped at the box office to pick up my tickets. (Out of habit, I guess. It’s been a while.) The gentleman behind the glass informed me that the tickets were on my phone, of course, attached to an e-mail. “Welcome to the 21st century,” he said.

The line was organized and moved quickly: First, they checked our vaccination QR codes, then our ID, then the tickets (on our phones). Very smooth.

Into the lobby – which was packed. I felt a tiny bit anxious. It’s been a long 20 months. The sold-out theatre itself was also a squeeze. The Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage, as lovely as it is, does not offer the sort of roomy comfort seating you might find at the multiplex. I dug into my bag for a second mask. I reminded myself that public-health officials are allowing full-capacity audiences, if we are vaxxed and masked. So, on with the show.

The artistic and executive directors delivered some lovely opening remarks, thanking staff and patrons for supporting the arts and noting how good it felt to be back together. “I will never ever take that for granted ever again,” said artistic director Ashlie Corcoran.

Amen.

The adaptation is not a jukebox musical – there is no character named Jolene; Santa’s Elves do not burst into a rendition of 9 to 5 to protest their working conditions. The songs were mostly written for the show (or, as in Circle of Love, adapted).

The show is set in 1936 in a tiny impoverished mining town. It’s Christmas Eve and the richest man in town, Ebenezer Scrooge (a terrific David M. Adams), is preparing to kick a family out of their home – a foreclosure. Arriving home that evening, Scrooge forbids his housekeeper (Madeleine Suddaby, also excellent in various roles) from even mentioning the holiday. He scoffs at her one attempt at festivity – adding raisins to his nightly dinner of oatmeal.

And then, to bed.

The adaptation is not a jukebox musical. The songs were mostly written for the show.Arts Club Theatre

The basic plotline is familiar, with visits from the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come. We see young Scrooge on two Christmas Eves of his youth, with important people in his life: His sister and, in a subsequent year, the woman he wants to marry. Problem: These two women are played by the same actor (Synthia Yusuf, who is very good) with no discernable change of costume – at least not anything that I noticed – leading to some confusion. Wait – was Scrooge sweet on his sister? What?

It didn’t help that the audio was muffled at times, making it difficult to hear some of the dialogue.

The six-piece band, playing live onstage, was fantastic. But even these talented musicians could not elevate some of the songs. The lyrics were not clever and too repetitive – missing that true Dolly sparkle. Some of the numbers felt as drab as the show’s colour palette.

And insipid might be too mild a word for some of the dialogue: “Christmas ain’t about the tree, Mr. Scrooge. It’s about the people who gather around it.”

The second act was a big improvement, beginning with a centre-stage hoedown that was more spirited than most of what came before. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come – a hooded spectre who communicated only by violin – was brilliant. And the happy ending, which we all knew was coming, did bring the joy.

I suspect – and hope – that as the show gets further into the run, many of these kinks will have been worked out, both offstage and on.

As we return to the theatre (and thank goodness for that), there are some key things that must be in place. People need to feel welcome and safe, and the entertainment value has to be worth it – worth the risk, however small; worth the money in tight times; and even worth putting on hard pants and dragging yourself out of the house.

Theatre companies need all the support we can give them – and we need theatre just as much. Even if this wasn’t the perfect show, it still felt exciting to be there. Everyone played their part: The crew, performers, administrators, front-of-house staff – and the people who bought tickets and headed out on a rainy night in spite of everything. God bless them, every one.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage. (Television reviews, typically based on an incomplete season, are exempt.)

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