‘A Circus Carol’ is familiar, yet incomparable

Mounting two distinct holiday shows with almost no crossover, Wanderlust's got it going on.

I’d heard of Wanderlust’s two holiday shows in (ahem) Christmases Past. I was aware that “White Album Christmas” and “A Circus Carol” were seasonal standards. Still, I had yet to seen them, and based on limited exposure to much older monthly shows at Bossanova, I’d made a few assumptions. I figured that the shows would be PRETTY great, but also pretty similar to one another, two forums to repackage the same talented circus acts, with a very simple narrative through-line.

When I caught “White Album” a couple weeks ago, the storyline at least was what I’d expected: a family of ringers from the audience—a little girl and her two ghastly parents—interacted contentiously with Mickens, and eventually the daughter (played by Meg Russell) took to the stage. Fair enough; broadly drawn heroes and villains drum up bigger yays and boos from an all-ages crowd. But as for the rest of the show…I was wowed. The band was particularly superb, and the routines were dazzling. The personnel were so plentiful, and the scene changes so sudden, and the show so long (about 3 hours), it was almost too much, and hard for even an avid note-taker like me to track. I thought, “Surely the next show will re-use some of this work. I’ll sit on these notes and write up both shows at once, telling what each notable act did at both events.”

Nope. As it turned out, “A Circus Carol” was completely distinct from “White Album,” with not just a different band, but a wholly different cast of characters, and a changed ratio of tricks to tale. Where “White Album” was a skill showcase hung on a thread of narrative, “Carol” was a full-fledged musical with very witty dialogue and a tasteful smattering of acrobatics. Two familiar faces from “White Album” were ringmaster Noah Mickens, who played Scrooge, and ingenue contortionist Meg Russell, who portrayed a (miraculously recovering to say the least) Tiny Tim. But by trotting out an otherwise all-new cast of multidisciplinary stars, Wanderlust proved so versatile and prolific that just chronicling their efforts was unwieldy.

As soon as jazz band 3Leg Torso shambled onto the stage in chimney sweep costumes, jawing at each “ovver” in cockney accents, we got a clue that this show would weave acting in with its musical offerings. A later appearance by accordionist Eric Stern as the Ghost of Hanukkah Present further cemented this, as he shuffled and shrugged around mumbling, “Oy, gevalt!” at Scrooge’s bad attitude. While the show tasked its musicians with acting, it also asked a handful of acrobats and swing dancers to sing. In the most extreme example, Terra Zarra as the Ghost of Christmas Past performed a head-spinning aerial routine on a hoop while singing “Carol of the Bells.” Vocally, it was already a feat of respiration and range, and acrobatically, it was a showcase of supreme grace and might. Altogether, in a sparkling ice-white leotard and skeletal makeup, she was pretty unreal. Swing dance luminary Russell Brunner even held up his half of “Baby It’s Cold Outside”—adequately, while, like a good dance partner, he let his lady shine. Bob Cratchit (played by juggler/balancer Charlie Brown) was notably near-silent and barely in character—kind of a shame since his off-kilter verbal wit was an obvious strength in a past appearance at Miz Kitty’s Parlour. Some story-suitable explanation for his props, from his stackable blocks to his sword, would have been helpful. Singer Scot Crandall as Marley did no tricks—except for singing “O Holy Night,” divinely.

Classic carols got plenty of reinterpretation: Mickens re-framed “Silver Bells” as an old man’s rant about the noise level of merriment (a la the Grinch). 3Leg reset “Joy To The World” as a Copland-esque composition with wild-west wide-open fifths, translated “Carol of the Bells” into a polyrhythmic world-beat jam, and mutated “Let it Snow” into a mournful minor polka. As the Spirit of Christmas Yet To Come swung eerily from purple silks, the band used squeaks, rattles and resonating frequencies to create a first-rate horror-show soundscape. 3Leg’s versatility was nothing short of awe-inspiring. Even ghostly acrobats couldn’t upstage them.

The script found its humor in re-framing the Dickensian events into more modern terms: Do-gooders who canvased Scrooge’s counting house were “gentlemen on bicycles” (read: Mormons) the Cratchits (celebrating Hanukkah in this version) were strapped with their daughter’s student loans and payments on their Prius, Young Scrooge was too busy working on his MBA to properly court Belle. Scrooge defended his “humbug” attitude with a wry comment that his “friends at Coca Cola invented Santa Claus to go with their bottle.”

Performances that defy categorization are too often doomed to underrepresentation in the press. After all, it’s harder to declare “a fine representation of a form” when shows combine too many disciplines to parse. But in case you hadn’t heard, the huge collective of artists under the umbrella of Wanderlust Circus are generally working their multitalented asses off, full of surprises, and better than I (or probably you) could imagine. And even though the holiday shows have wrapped…it doesn’t show signs of stopping.

More Portland “Christmas Carol” Reviews: Portland Playhouse | Post5 Theater | Twist Your Dickens

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A. L. Adams also writes the monthly column Art Walkin’  for  The Portland Mercury, and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly Magazine. Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch | The Portland Mercury
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One Response.

  1. Noah Mickens says:

    Wow, thanks Anne for the sparkling revue.

    The idea with Bob Cratchit’s juggling was in the script, but perhaps not adequately expressed in the dialogue. When we find him in the office at the top of Scene 2, he’s cold and trying to stay warm by moving around. This segues into his first juggling routine. When Scrooge catches him, he makes reference to the fact that this has been happening a lot lately. Scrooge doesn’t give Cratchit a chance to explain himself.
    Then, when Hannukah Present takes Scrooge to Cratchit’s house, Scrooge says “If he was so worried about getting presents for his family, he shouldn’t have been wasting his time practicing those foolish juggling tricks!” And GOHP says, “Oy, Scrooge, you’re getting ahead of the lesson. Just watch.”
    Cratchit then has his whole scene with his family. In that scene, we discover that Cratchit’s fun juggling tricks ARE the presents that he got for his family. He uses the cigar boxes as actual physical presents to hand them while he does his club routine, then asks for them back for the clubs bit. There’s even a whole part in there where Cratchit uses his club routine as an object lesson, showing his kids that “if you work hard enough at something, you’ll get a payback that’s much better than money!”
    It’s a whole thing. And that, in short, is the in-story explanation for Bob Cratchit’s juggling stuff.

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