If one thinks of Dickens as the epitome of outdated sentimentality, or could not imagine another serious attempt at “God bless us, every one!” around the dinner table, John Fisher’s rewrite of this classic promises to lighten and enliven an old story with its modern musical equivalent.
“A Ghost Story in Three Visitations and Ten Musical Numbers” opens this weekend in Lisser Hall. A collaborative show that is musically exciting and revisits old themes with new characters (like a sexy Ghost of Christmas Present and Tiny Tim’s two moms), “A Christmas Carol” is loaded with all the necessary glitz and glam of a proper spoof musical.
Written especially for Mills, this version of the play is adapted to a new setting-a mythical women’s college in the East Bay. Instead of the traditional cutthroat businessman who refuses his employees their due, Scrooge is the chancellor of the college and denies his minions-academic types-the things that most concern them; tenure, benefits, retirement and the like.
“Where the peons in the movie world are people working for pennies, here they are lecturers,” said James Dudek, who wrote the music and lyrics for the play. For him, the idea of the play is to take a fun but cynical look at “the incredibly feudal system of academia.” For Fisher, the story is all in fun, not meant to upset the sensibilities of those taking the situation too literally. The new tale, he says, is modern and tough. Ebenezer Scrooge, played by Fisher “totally gets reeducated and beat up by women.”
The story still contains the compulsory Ghosts of Christmas Future, Past, and Present and visits from the other side will still lead Scrooge’s fragile ego on to transformation. But these ghosts will have more sass than the Dicken’s variety. The character sketch for the Ghost of Christmas present looks a cross between a Playboy Bunny and Heidi, and the ghost of Christmas past’s costume includes roller skates. With 10 original musical numbers, Scrooge’s journey promises to be an unusual one.
Brought to Mills by the same people who put on the popular “Boadecia, Warrior Queen of the Britons,” last year, this show is also picking up where a Mills tradition left off. For about 25 years, Jim Wright, former head of the dramatic arts department, directed “A Christmas Carol.” This production had tons of people on stage as generations of families, alumni, and kids participated in the yearly tradition. While this show was loved by many, Fisher’s version marks a departure from the past. Dudek says to expect “a complete change.”
The total cast numbers about 23, including kids, community members and featuring Mills students from different disciplines. “Its hell to rehearse” said Fisher, “but the students are really good.”
Richard Battle, costume co-designer and Mills lecturer, described the musical as the ultimate collaboration. He said this production is great because of the cooperation from other departments from Fine Arts to Physical Education.
The bawdy humor and wit of Carol, while breathing new life, won’t substitute for substance. In keeping with Dickens’s ability to shock and his social criticism, Fisher explores social themes as well. According to Fisher, during Christmas; “No matter what religion, it’s time to look out for someone other than number one.”
Fisher holds a Ph.D. in Dramatic Arts, is a 5-time Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle Award Winner and teaches at UC Berkeley.
Still, he cites three familiar stories as the best all time Christmas tales, including “A Christmas Carol,” “The Grinch That Stole Christmas,” and “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” “Carol,” he said, is the only one that leaves room for visual interpretation. “A good classic can always be modernized,” he said.
Although this year’s production was produced on a shoestring budget, the organizers hope for donations that will enable an even larger, more colorful performance of Fisher’s “A Christmas Carol” next year. Audience members will have the chance to sponsor a costume for the future performance, taking home a signed sketch of an adopted outfit. “Conceptually, it works wonderfully,” said costume co-designer Taisia Nikonishchenko, as it leaves room for newcomers to contribute and see a show as it progresses. For now, the offstage enthusiasm of all involved promises to carry over into the production.
“It should be a big spectacle,” said Fisher. And with the song and dance numbers, Dudek added, “This is not something you’d fall asleep in.”