Wednesday, November 17, 2021

A Christmas Carol – large scale musical production reaches for the sky (Belfast Operatic Company at Grand Opera House until Saturday 20 November)

Local operatic societies have come a long way. While the cast, crew and creatives are (mostly) not being paid, there’s nothing amateur about the performances. The move from local hall stages with a few mics suspended over the performers to using dedicated theatre spaces has allowed their ambitions to grow, or perhaps allowed their existing ambitions to be more fully realised.

Last night, Belfast Operatic Company’s A Christmas Carol opened on the vast expanse of the Grand Opera House Stage. The core strength of the production is how well it deals with scale. A projected backdrop eliminates the need for heavy sets, and the vast company filled the depth of the stage. The dance routine choreographies are visually appealing with energetic circles and shapes across the stage. Coordinating such a large cast – there are close to 80 people in the cast – must be a military operation behind-the-scenes, yet the on-stage placement creates natural street scenes and distinct groups of characters and movement. Director Wilfie Pyper keeps it busy without ever reducing the spectacle to straight chorus lines or an unruly mob.

Colin Boyd’s Ebenezer Scrooge looks like an unkempt William Hartnell playing the original Doctor Who. There’s a levity to the script that injects a lot more light than many non-musical productions allow. Scrooge has a cutting tongue, but Boyd keeps him more mean than nasty, always hinting that the bachelor curmudgeon might be redeemable: “If you have aught to teach me, let me profit by it”. Scrooge is joined on stage by larger-than-life figures like the gloriously jolly Mr & Mrs Fezziwig (Fergal White and Laura Kerr) whose wit and repartee really match the colourful costumes at their Christmas Ball.

Adaptations of Dickens’ novella can sometimes become very bogged down in the minutiae of the elongated scenes within each of the ghostly visitations. Mike Ockrent and Lynn Ahrens’ book for this musical version devote a lot of time to the Ghost of Christmas Past (very capably piloted by Alice Johnston), before changing gear and speeding through Christmas Present and Christmas Future after the interval. Belfast Operatic (literally) fly through some of the scenes, and the lack of long scene changes really helps keep the story moving with pace. While aerial manoeuvring must be hard to rehearse, the flying actors looked very comfortable and remained very animated while dangling above the ground level activity.

Favourite moments include a touch of the Ingmar Bergman about the graveyard scene, particularly during Dancing On Your Grave. Duarte Silva Moreira is a superb Tiny Tim, with a strong voice and a great connection with the audience. Hats off to the costumers and wardrobe team, and the 18-piece orchestra in the pit who romp through Alan Menken’s score. The addition of a few boundary mics dotted along the front of the stage for emergency use would have helped with radio mic dropouts and allowed some of the missing lines to have been heard.

Belfast Operatic Company achieves a very high standard in this production. There’s colour and energy, strong singing and good storytelling throughout. There are two or three generations of some families working on the show: it’s a celebration of artistry and community. And while this festival favourite is tucked in ahead of the venue’s own panto run, it’s a fine entrée to Advent and the Christmas season. A Christmas Carol continues at the Grand Opera House until Saturday 20 November.

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