By GQ, JQ, Jackson Doran, and Postell Pringle
Developed with Rick Boynton
Music by JQ
Directed by GQ and JQ
Choreography by Anacron
Produced by Chicago Shakespeare Theater
“Our final destination is all the same station.”
Among the newer Chicago theatre Christmas traditions is the Q Brothers’ hip-hop adaptation of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. The play received Jeff nominations last season for best ensemble and best new musical, and the remount, once again in the upstairs studio at Chicago Shakespeare, provides plenty of evidence why. Clever, funny, satirical, and full of heart, the Q Brothers’ take captures the essence of what has made A Christmas Carol such a long-lasting crowd favorite, while updating its presentation, and adjusting its tone for an audience which is used to grittier Christmas fare, but still connects with Dickens’s tale of redemption.
The design team, including Scott Davis’s set and costumes, and Jesse Klug’s lighting, has made the intimate venue as warm and inviting as any of the more artistically conservative productions. The whole room is swathed in fairy lights, and the thrust stage is surrounded with tables where a few audience members can enjoy their drinks in the atmosphere of a laid-back club. Also warm and laid-back is DJ Super Nova’s pre-show sound mix, which he concludes by reminding the audience that if they share their energy, the performers will return it to them. Once the show begins, JQ, Jackson Dornan, and Postell Pringle appear in argyle sweater vests, and engage in some ironically corny Christmas cheer before GQ rounds out the cast as Scrooge, and casually bumps a child tongue-first into a pole.
In this modernized setting, Scrooge runs an accounting firm that used to be a wig store, and he claims to despise Christmas for its crass commercialism. When his nephew, Fred (Dornan), and Bob Cratchit (Pringle) try to invite him to join in the festivities, he proclaims “Chris my ass-mas,” and declares his intention to put his name on the tallest building in the city so refugees can see it from the other side of their fence (I’m guessing this monologue is new material). Davis’s costumes and Melissa Veal’s wigs and make-up are not quite illusionary; with four actors to play all the roles on a small stage, the Q Brothers’ concept is Brechtian in its tendency to break the fourth wall, and the self-references are the source of much of the night’s humor.
The dialogue starts off as rhyming couplets, but the verse becomes more complex as the show progresses. So does the inventiveness of the adaptation’s satire. Scrooge’s deceased business partner, Jacob Marley (JQ), appears in ghostly dreadlocks, forced to perform reggae music as his punishment for greed in life. While this initially appears to be an obvious pun on his last name, the Ghost of Christmas Past (Pringle) later shows us how Marley convinced Scrooge as a young man to abandon his ethically-run wig-making business, in favor of farming Jamaicans for their hair. We also see how Scrooge was a gifted child who originally used his talents to help others, but became intolerant of other people as he matured more quickly than his friends. As a young accountant, he bonded with Fezzi’s daughter, Belle (also JQ), over their love for numbers, but was seduced by the possibility of having ever larger values and more complicated financial formulas to play with, until he lost his connection to humanity.
After pulling double-duty as Marley and Belle, JQ appears again as the mellow, word-blending Ghost of Christmas Present. The scenes with the Cratchits are some of the show’s funniest (Lil’ Tim suffers from rabies, and a dozen other things), but they end with JQ spitting a devastating summation of Scrooge’s character, which is a key turning point in the show. It’s impressive how the Q Brothers match not only the source material’s plot points, but its emotional arc. Even with all its spoofing, this Christmas Carol is still affecting in key places, including Scrooge’s realization that he has harmed people who are genuinely kind-hearted. GQ’s performance as Scrooge has something of Stephen Colbert about it, particularly early on, when he’s literally in love with his sack of money. But he plays Scrooge’s journey sincerely, and the result is just as touching as any Christmas Carol could hope to be. Besides JQ’s skill as an actor, the entire cast is limber, possesses excellent timing, and are masterfully eloquent. It’s always a delight when a Christmas show finds the balance between its brain and its heart, but this one dazzles with its sheer creativity.
Reviewed December 3, 2015
For more information, see A Q Brothers’ Christmas Carol’s page on Theatre in Chicago.
Playing in the Upstairs at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier, 800 E Grand Avenue, Chicago. Tickets are $30-48; to order, call 312-595-5600 or visit chicagoshakes.com. Runs through January 3, 2016. Running time is seventy-five minutes, with no intermission.