SALT LAKE CITY — The Grand Theatre’s holiday production is a two-for-one experience for audience members. The evening’s double-header consists of Amahl and the Night Visitors and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
Amahl and the Night Visitors
This short, one-hour opera (composed by Gian Carlo Menotti) is about a young boy and his mother who are visited by the three Kings who are on their way to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Amahl & The Night Visitors opens with Amahl (played by Sasha Southwick) sitting off to the side, playing on his recorder and aided by the live orchestra upstage. The set is small, confined to a small portion of the stage with only a wall, door and a makeshift bed. The clothes both Amahl and his mother (played by Jacquelyn Milligan) wear communicate their poverty more than any specific time period. The costuming (coordinated by Robin Farnsley-Becker) really stands out when the three Kings arrive, asking to spend the night. Each king wears their own unique color: red, green, or blue. The robes and garments each King wears seems so opulent contrasted against the poverty of Amahl and his mother. There is also a page (played by Dillan Burnett), who is mostly silent until the end, and whose clothes are commensurate with his station.
Some of the highlights of the performance are the introduction of both the Kings and the shepherds who have come to offer food to them. Both groups begin to sing off stage, from the back of the theatre, as they make their way to the stage. When the shepherds come, the houselights are turned on, and there is no orchestral music as the ensemble sings. The opera feels especially collaborative with the inclusion of a modern ballet piece performed by Tess Albert-Stauning and Wyatt Johnson (choreographed by Melissa Bobick). This was the best moment in the opera and reminded me of my love for the beauty of ballet. During the dance piece, the ensemble cast members ooh-ed and aah-ed at various technical feats by the dancers and it made me feel that this opera should be adapted into a ballet, since some of the comedic moments could work without dialogue (such as when Amahl tried to wake his mother, who thinks he is lying, about the Kings being at the door).
The sense of morality in the opera felt uniquely moving – Amahl’s mother tries to steal some gold coins, because they have nothing, and when the page discovers the robbery, he outs her as a thief. Although Amahl defends her, King Melchior (played by Porter Hiatt) tells her that the poor are an important part of the mission of the baby that they are going to meet, and Melchior gives her the gold coins. Amahl then offers to give his crutch to the Kings (despite being disabled) to bring to the child, which prompts him to be cured. Even though I do not share some of the religious beliefs underlying the story, the way the opera unfolds from that point resounded with me.
Amahl & The Night Visitors is a pleasant Christmas opera and carries some seasonal themes: charitable giving, being a (somewhat) gracious host, helping the poor. This was a great collaborative event, and if this is staged again, perhaps a larger set (the dancing scene looked and felt very cramped) would be the only significant change that would improve upon a very touching story.
Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol
Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (music by Michael G. Leavitt, script adapted by Anthony T. Buck) is a crash course in this Christmas classic. At only an hour long, the audience is given a highlight reel of all the most famous lines and plot points in the book.
Just like in Amahl & The Night Visitors, there is no screen displaying lyrics, which decreased the accessibility of the musical. It became obvious that there was something wrong with either the sound design (by Adam Day) or the singing, because there were multiple times I could not understand what was being said or sung. This happened with the Ghost of Christmas Past (played by Isabel Cossa), the ghost of Jacob Marley (played by Alex Harrelson), Ole Joe (played by Nelson LeDuc) and the various characters played by Matthew Tang.
With the show often incomprehensible, I could enjoy A Christmas Carol most from a technical perspective. With the set for Amahl & The Night Visitors removed, all that remained were metal rafters for actors to stand on, supplemented with individual set pieces, such as a bed or desk for Scrooge (played by John Knight Allen) bed, or a dinner table for the Cratchit family. These pieces were enough to amply create a sense of place. The show makes great use of lighting, (designed by Seth Miller) such as when the ghost of Christmas future comes and the stage is flooded with red. The costuming (done by Robin Farnsley-Becker) is perfectly recognizable as Victorian-era England. Even the various ghosts looked top-notch; Past wears a gold crown that resembles a halo and a long white dress with gold embellishments. Present (played by Porter Hiatt) holds a torch and wears a wreath on his head and a long elegant robe, while Future (played by Natalia Turchin-Champagne) has her face make-up down like a skeleton, is wearing a long black robe, and carries a red lantern.
While the show’s technical elements are a delight, there seems to be no emotional core. The script and lyrics rest on the laurels of A Christmas Carol and assume that the audience knows the characters, the moral of the story, and other important information. But as I watched the performance, I thought, why does Scrooge care about tiny Tim and all these other people. Why does he actually feel bad? Neither the script, nor the actors could give a reason for why Scrooge should change his behavior or why the audience should care
This version of A Christmas Carol is, in some ways, more about the people around Scrooge, and Allen’s performance makes him the least interesting character (especially after he becomes charitable). Angry people are very interesting, and Scrooge telling the charity women (played by Sasha Southwick and Sarah Pierce) that people should just die to decrease the surplus population was so spicy and the strongest moment for the character.
Overall, A Christmas Carol would be stronger as a longer musical to help flesh out the stories and characters better.