A Dickens of a Dickens: ZJU’s “Christmas Carol”

There will be many versions of A Christmas Carol this season.

There will be none like — or more delightful than — the one at Zombie Joe’s Underground.

Yes, the little black box that specializes in grim amusements (such as Urban Death and the Hallowe’en Tour of Terror) is also the place for a dickens of a Dickens.

Carol ZJU

In a swift hour, a dozen merry pranksters whirl and spin us through the classic tale of ghosts scaring the miser out of Ebenezer Scrooge. Singing and dancing to Denise Devin’s baton, the troupe so deftly juggles our emotions that we find ourselves weeping at this old chestnut, and laughing through our tears.

Skillful, energetic staging bounces us madly along, from the opening mini-concert by a demented Steam Punk Chorus to the redeemed Scrooge’s effervescent ending.

But what captures us as if we’d never heard this tale before is the astonishing acting.  Each moment, and almost every character, bursts onstage with absolute focus, intensity and belief — creating an emotional pressure as unrelenting as the physical energy.

With every performer (but one) handling at least three roles, and some as many as six or seven, this is a remarkable achievement.  It’s a tight-knit, closely timed ensemble performance — as it must be, to manage the constant flow of backstage traffic alone.

Still, there are standouts.  Among the mad singers, a twisted violinist (Lara Lihiya), a barely controlled  tambourinist (Gloria Galvan) and a stark-staring soprano (Kelly Rhone) help make “comfort and joy” quite unnerving.  The chorus master (AJ Scalfani) sets the scene with ringing clarity.  Then Jacob Marley’s ghost (Patrick Albanesius) gets us off on precisely the right foot — coming not to terrify but to warn, himself utterly terrified by having met divine justice.

As Scrooge, Sebastian Muñoz makes a well-worn role startlingly fresh.  This Ebenezer’s not crabby or bitter, he’s smug.  He oozes self-satisfaction, as oily and clueless as a Macbillionaire.  Shocked out of his shell by his dead partner, stirred into feeling by his own buried memories, he struggles wildly, at last grasping the thin straw of transformation.  It works — and pregnant with new life, he explodes in a joy that’s earned and infectious.

Finally, though, the holly wreath must go to Devin.  As the director (and adapter of the text), she is the master designer of these revels. And as all three Ghosts of Christmas — past, present and future — she unleashes a triple tornado, driving the very heart of the story with energy, wit and grace.

Like Scrooge, we become complacent.  We think we know this old story too well to be really moved, and approach it as theatrical comfort food.  But a great clown can take you, even as you laugh,  where you hadn’t  expected to go.

Zombie Joe’s jesters do exactly that, reminding us gently but firmly that our mortal time for loving is all too brief.  You couldn’t ask for a better gift.

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A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, adapted and directed by Denise Devin.
Presented by Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Company, at the ZJU Theatre, 4850 N. Lankershim Blvd.

Saturdays at 8:30 pm, Sundays at 7:00 pm, through Dec. 28th.

Tickets:  (818) 202-4120, or <www.zombiejoes.com>