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Review: 'A Christmas Carol' is back with new thrills at Freefall Theatre

By Stephanie Hayes
Photos by Mike Wood
David Mann lends a gruff bark as Ebenezer Scrooge with Daniel Schwab as Fred in A Christmas Carol at Freefall Theatre.

ST. PETERSBURG — To best measure the strength of a holiday classic, watch it unfold on the faces of young people.

At Freefall Theatre's A Christmas Carol on Sunday afternoon, one little girl screamed for her life when Jacob Marley came raging on stage, awash in green lights and clanking his chains of regret. Her brother spent the rest of the scene alternately giggling and hiding in his shirt like a mole.

Christmas glee! Yes, there is still plenty of satisfying fear and joy in Charles Dickens' redemption tale. Everyone knows Ebenezer Scrooge, the curmudgeon so curmudgeonly he delights in steam rolling all holiday spirit.

"Your sentimentality is sickening," he sneers at his cheerful nephew. "And also a great waste of my time."

It's Christmas, and such petulance can't last. Scrooge has to suffer through his dreary past, present and future with helpful hints before he decides to go nice. The cautionary tale from 1843 still resonates, performed every year in theaters around the world.

This is Freefall's fourth year doing the musical, with book and lyrics by Keith Ferguson and music by Bruce Greer. The songs are traditional English carols and original numbers that bolster the narrative without distracting from it.

Freefall has aimed to turn the show into a community tradition, while finding ways to keep it fresh. This year's production welcomes new faces, including David Mann as Scrooge and Joey Panek as Bob Cratchit. Freefall fans will spot Kelly Pekar and Taylor Simmons from the recently wrapped Into the Woods.

Mann, who played the Emcee in Freefall's Cabaret, lends a gruff bark to Scrooge, a meanness he subtly transforms. Sarasota-based performer Panek, known for his Internet show How Bout Joey, gives Cratchit warmth, sweetness and a really big smile.

Director Eric Davis does his usual strong work filling the stage with creative interpretations. Costumes by Mike and Kathy Buck Designs and Davis are luscious to look at, as is the set by Greg Bierce and Matt Davis. The lighting by Mike Wood is up to Freefall's engaging standards. And there's even snow.

The chief challenge for A Christmas Carol is in the sound, which felt uneven much of the time Sunday. The cast sang to a recorded track, and it seemed hard to find cohesion and rhythm without the benefit of live musicians. The track often drowned out the singers, especially the children and the high sopranos.

The show is just spooky enough for both kids and adults. Davis pinpoints the tale's inherent darkness in a few ways, including the time-tested practice of putting haunting masks on small children. And I almost yelped myself when the Ghost of Christmas Future came lumbering out. Wait for the thrill.

Here's a note from the Ghost of Intermission Present: If you're going to have the festive hot cocoa at the half, enjoy. But hold tight to the ceramic mug, a few of which went clunk on the stairs toward the show's end. Scrooge needs everyone's full cooperation to turn jolly.

Contact Stephanie Hayes at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716. Follow @stephhayes.