Paul Robeson Theatre's production of "Christmas is Comin' Uptown" brims with holiday charm, endearing performances from a young cast and timely lessons about the debilitating effects of greed.
But the show, a clever musical transposition of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" to a struggling urban neighborhood, was not quite ready for its downtown debut on Dec. 8 in Shea's 710 Main Theatre.
The production, directed and choreographed by Reginald Kelly and featuring a large cast of performers with a range of experience, struggled to connect with its opening-night audience because of clunky transitions, uneven performances and a general sense of directorial confusion.
But for audiences well-attuned to the tradeoffs of community theater and willing to look past its rough edges, there is much to redeem the production and its heartfelt message.
The show is set on 125th Street in pre-gentrification Harlem, a stretch of road lined with the run-down businesses and apartment houses of Ebenezer Scrooge (Chalma Warmley). In the authors' smart reconfiguration of the Dickens classic, Scrooge is a Harlem slumlord whose various buildings are in a deplorable state of disrepair.
After a rousing introductory musical number, we meet Bob Cratchit (Leon Copeland), who shivers in his cold office as he fields a series of calls from increasingly frustrated neighborhood residents about the sordid state of affairs. Ceilings are caving in. The church and recreation center have to be closed. Scrooge is planning to evict dozens of people from one of his condemned properties on Christmas Eve.
Scrooge's reaction? "That's humbug, baby. We're businessmen. We ain't got nothing to do with that." And Scrooge's motto? "God helps those who bless themselves."
Then comes the procession of ghosts, from the chain-laden Jacob Marley (Al Garrison), Christmas Past (London Lee), Christmas Present (Sandra Gilliam) and Christmas Future (Paul Robeson veteran Charles A. Everhard Sr.).
The journeys these ghosts arrange for Scrooge closely mirror Dickens' course of regret and redemption, with the exception of the ghost of Christmas Past, who takes audiences on a psychedelic journey into a wonderful, pan-African dance extravaganza set to a catchy song called "Lifeline."
That number features the talents of the African American Cultural Center's young troupe of student actors and dancers, who deliver many of the production's most satisfying moments. That's especially true for Bryan Perry, whose unhurried delivery of Tiny Tim's famous lines was well-placed for maximum adorability.
The highlight of the production came courtesy of Latosha Payton, whose soulful performance of the Gospel song "What Better Time for Love" came toward the end of the first act.
Costumes by Annette L. Christian, especially for the outrageously attired ghosts, added a welcome note of fantasy to the production. As did utilitarian sets by Harlan Penn depicting 125th Street, even if they sometimes proved too large and clunky to be gracefully repositioned on the theater's three-quarter round stage.
A frenetic lighting design from Malik Griffin did not help matters when it came to transitions, illuminating the confusion of stagehands and actors rather than masking it.
This "Christmas Carol" twist may not be the most polished on a local stage this year, where opportunities to explore Dickens' enduring story abound. But it is certainly one of the cleverest and most spirited. If approached with those expectations, "Christmas is Comin' Uptown" offers plenty to savor.
2 stars (out of four)
"Christmas is Comin' Uptown," a musical presented by the Paul Robeson Theatre in Shea's 710 Main Theatre, 710 Main St., runs through Dec. 18. Tickets are $25. Call Call 847-1410 or visit sheas.org.