Charles Dickens’ classic 1843 novella A Christmas Carol has been reprinted, adapted, imitated and lampooned endlessly, so coming up with a new spin on this grand old tale is a daunting task. Community theatre group ACT’s latest version of the story sidesteps that hurdle by having their audience choose how the story gets revamped in An Improvised Christmas Carol.
Audience suggestions reshape all manner of settings, characterizations and plot points over the course of the show. On the night of this review, for instance, Scrooge runs a fishing business (which segues into a darkly comic running gag about assorted mermaid defilements), Tiny Tim’s tragic infirmity is a lisp, and the dreaded Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come communicates via interpretive dance.
Patron participation extends beyond providing suggestions. Audience members join in on a couple of Christmas singalongs, get drafted into scenes, and vote (via applause) on certain casting with actors auditioning briefly for the crowd, which is how 50-something improv neophyte Darlene Lund narrowly edges out precocious teen improviser Sophie MacInnis and improv veteran Stacy Dunn to become a surreally unlikely, potently funny Tiny Tim.
Director/narrator John Mazerolle heads a cast consisting of the Island Improv Company (Mazerolle, Noah Nazim, Johnny Novak, Nadine Salami and Nason Scribner) plus Dunn, Lund, MacInnis and Sophia Ball. All eight find moments to shine over the course of the night and nearly all of them play multiple characters, though Nazim is locked into the lead role as Scrooge, a part he plays with malevolently mugging gusto.
Mazerolle, who’s done earlier versions of this show with improv groups in Saint John and Toronto, is a likeably low-key presence as the show’s narrator. He and Nazim in particular also help facilitate the others’ efforts, finding ways to move things along or dial up the funny as needed, adding a smattering of choice asides along the way.
It’s not all gold — like any improv there’s a mix of hits and misses over the course of the night, and some segments drag on a bit (the fun-but-repetitive vacation slides routine springs to mind); but an engaged, energetic cast mostly keeps it lively and light (give or take a mermaid murder), and there are lots of neat little touches.
Salami, for instance, uses her dance training to good effect as a salsa-style Ghost of Christmas Past and Nazim gamely echoes her efforts, literally thinking fast on his feet; newcomer Lund’s instinctive comedic flair boosts many a scene, especially as a squeakily tongue-tied Tiny Tim; MacInnis excels at both bold choices and big, intense physical movement in multiple sequences, and there are similarly showily physical bits from Novak, Scribner, Dunn, Ball and Lund at one time or another, making it a visually interesting show despite super-minimal set and props.
As a lifelong Christmas Carol fan I still prefer the novella and its better scripted adaptations — two of the very best being the 1992 Muppet version and the 1951 Alastair Sim version, the latter recently screened by the Charlottetown Film Society at City Cinema (here’s hoping they do that every year) — but ACT’s improv variant is certainly a fun change of pace. After all, it enabled me to write perhaps the first-ever Christmas Carol review using the phrase “assorted mermaid defilements,” surely the sort of holiday gift money can’t buy. Or to paraphrase Tiny Tim: God help us, every one.