Like it or not, what we have here, for Christmas 1990, is The War of the Scrooges.
OK, not a real knock-down, drag-out battle or a Middle East conflict, but - for the first time we can recall - two separate productions of the musical version of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" at the same time in the Salt Lake area.Not to mention all of the "Christmas Carol" productions that have proliferated this season.
But, since we have the rare opportunity to compare two Scrooges - both played by well-known local performers who are consummate professionals, Michael Jesse Bennett and Ralph G. Rodgers Jr. - let's see how these two shows stack up side by side.
- RALPH AND MIKE: It's a little ironic that the valley's first "Scrooge" was at Promised Valley Playhouse with Rodgers directed by Pat Davis. That was back before the Hales started their South Salt Lake theater and their own tradition of the yearly "A Christmas Carol."
Rodgers also starred in Davis' production in 1989 at Salt Lake Community College's new South City Campus, utilizing the splendid auditorium at the old South High School. Originally, that was to be the scenario for this year's production, too - except that Rodgers, in the meantime, branched off with his own new centerstage theater in Davis County and, with the South High building still undergoing extensive renovations, Pat Davis went ahead with a new Scrooge (Bennett) in her temporary location at Salt Lake Community College's Redwood Road campus.
Both Bennett and Rodgers are excellent, but they approach the role of the skinflint-turned-saint in slightly different ways. Bennett, who has earned considerable acclaim for his wonderful one-man "Evening With Charles Dickens" performances (not being done here this year), appears, to me at least, to be the more realistic of the two. He's more intense.
Rodgers, on the other hand, has a slight impishness about him that gives his Ebenezer a more tongue-in-cheek demeanor. The choice is yours: Do you like your Scrooge mean and grumpy or light-hearted (but still grumpy)?
This is a musical and when it comes to the clever Leslie Bricusse tunes and lyrics, there's no contest. Rodgers has a terrific voice. Bennett takes the Rex Harrison route - talk/singing his way through the songs with a resonant, gravelly voice. Both ways are certainly acceptable.
- STAGING: While Rodgers gets points in the singing category, Pat Davis' production features wonderful scenery. Partly this is simply due to the different theaters. In the college's Little Theatre, the magic begins the moment you enter what is, essentially, a large lecture hall. You're surrounded, Cinerama style, by Clif and Chad Davis' beautifully lighted village of Cheapside, London.
At Pages Lane, it's the other way around. The audience surrounds the stage. And the large stage allows Rodgers to have a full-size bed.
But, in the next season or two, Pages Lane will probably decorate its walls much like the Hale Center Theater does. Check back with me in 1991 or '92.
Clif Davis has always been one of the region's finest scenery designers (in a city that seems to have an abundance of excellent designers), so the delightful imagery he produces should come as no surprise.
- SUPPORTING CASTS: Both of the large casts are excellent and both have a mix of several well-known performers, community players and students. Some exceptional standouts include one of our longtime favorites, Nelden Maxfield, who's been seen much too rarely on local stages in recent years, as a splendid Christmas Present at Pages Lane, and Scott D. Morgan, as an eerie Marley's Ghost at SLCAC. Also at SLCAC, Layne B. Willden was a very impressive Christmas Present. He's big and brawny, both in stature and voice. Of the two productions' Christmas Past's, I thought Rhonda Paige was delightfully giddy, while Jeniel Smith at SLCAC was a little more bland. I also felt Terry Howick's constantly fluctuating voice at Pages Lane more grating than ghostly in his performance as Marley.
- COSTUMING, ETC. - Both shows feature colorful costumes that, for all intents and purposes, depict a Cockney village in 1860. The SLCAC production could use some additional lighting, especially in Scrooge's office (but since this is not really a theater, some of the technical things may not be practical).
Both productions are highly recommended. It might just depend on which is closer to where you're driving from. (The new I-215 belt route puts the Salt Lake Community College campus fairly close to anywhere in the valley, whereas Pages Lane is in a shopping center that most Davis County residents are familiar with. Ample parking at both locations.)