I went to Ebenezer expecting the usual hilarious, free-form mayhem of Heritage Square and encountered an unexpected solemnity.
The company's version of A Christmas Carol made up the first half of the evening, and it was swift and workmanlike, if lower-key than many of the group's offerings. Still, there were funny bits. Annie Dwyer complained about not getting to play Scrooge and later sashayed around in a glittering white costume as the cynical, sulky Ghost of Christmas Past. Scott Koop made Fezziwig a circus clown. Perched on Rory Pierce's shoulder, spry, middle-aged Alex Crawford was an unlikely Tiny Tim. And D.P. Perkins and Kira Cauthorn oozed sticky sweetness as young Scrooge and his loving sister. As always, the performers played things right on the edge, their style so informal that they sometimes seemed more like the hosts of a pleasant amateur evening than the highly skilled singers and comics they are. On the night I attended, someone in the cast hummed a lyric from "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do," and half the audience broke into song. And sang and sang. And kept on singing until the actors were forced to halt the play and listen, laughing and bemused.
But for the most part, Ebenezer was presented pretty straight, with director-actor T.J. Mullin emphasizing Dickens's message about compassion. So I was hoping that the cast would cut loose during the skits and songs that come after the intermission, and for a while they did. "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" had all the slick and demented synchronicity I expect of Heritage. There was also a terrific bit in which musical director N. Randall Johnson, accompanying himself on the piano, sang "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer" while the other performers interrupted at random intervals to reel across the stage in reindeer costumes, lamenting, bickering, cracking jokes and improvising wildly in attempts to upstage each other.
But things got more serious when Mullin sang "O, Holy Night" and the audience was invited to join in on all the beautiful, standard carols: "Ding Dong Merrily on High," "Silent Night, Holy Night." I began to sing along with the cast, but then things started to feel churchy and my throat closed up.
It's a sad commentary on the ferocious politics of our time that overt religiosity makes many of us uncomfortable (and I'm just as uneasy when Jews complain about airport Christmas trees as when Christians harangue store clerks who have the temerity to greet them with "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas"). Growing up Jewish in London, I always loved Christmas. Looking back, it seems to me that my mother found perfect ways to celebrate the joy and affirmation of the season without compromising our sense of who we were. She never bought a Christmas tree, but she allowed me to spend many evenings helping Frau Resi, the Austrian refugee who lived with us, decorate the small fir in her room. And every December, she took me to D'Oyly Carte's latest Gilbert & Sullivan offering.
Back then, it wasn't hard for a Jew to be comfortable with England's Christianity. The Church of England was a mild and benign institution that, as far as I could tell, existed solely to comfort the bereaved and exhort everyone to be kind to the poor. I did envy the Christians their art: We had nothing to equal Bach or El Greco; our synagogues were no match for Gothic churches. But as I saw it, beauty belonged to all of us, and the Christ story was a metaphor that called on every one of us to be fully human. Nothing I saw growing up prepared me for the brand of Christianity becoming more and more prevalent in the United States: warlike, literalist, homophobic and misogynistic, intent on silencing all non-believers.
I'm not faulting these performers for expressing their faith on stage. I would like to find a way back to my sunny, innocent affection for all the signs and symbols of Christmas, and I did enjoy many aspects of Ebenezer. But I've always thought of Heritage Square Music Hall as a kind of funny, funky home, and for the first time in dozens of visits, I felt like an outsider.
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