Paul Robeson Theatre’s production of “Christmas Is Comin’ Uptown,” currently at 710 Main Theatre, is a great choice for the company, whose mission since 1968 has been "to nurture and showcase the talents of African American" theater artists and technicians. The play updates Scrooge into a Harlem slumlord in the 1970s bent on wringing every nickel he can out of the people in the tenements, church, and children’s recreation center he owns (‘if they don’t pay, they don’t stay/pray/play”). All the Dickens’ characters are intact – Marley, the Ghosts, the Cratchits and Scrooge’s former love, along with the addition of a trio of singers and dancers, a deacon and church choir, and many charming children. The play has teeth in its depiction of the issues facing Harlem, as well as many rust belt cities at the time. The dialogue, while retaining the intent of the original play, is modernized with a contemporary tone. The song lyrics, which often advance the plot or express characters, are fun, heartfelt, and at times very clever, e.g., Scrooge’s mercenary “Somebody’s Gotta Be the Heavy”, and the Trio’s “One Way Ticket to Hell."
However, the production values and a great deal of the acting are not up to the high standards usually set by this company. I’ve seen excellent productions by PRT, but as of opening night, this is not one of them. The sound quality was poor. I was in the second row center and could barely hear the singers at times, and some of the dialogue was completely lost. Adding to this the rather clunky and awkward set changes, it made for a less than perfect experience.
Chalma Warmley’s Scrooge never quite felt like he really meant it, either in his miserliness or his redemption. Leon Copeland’s Cratchit was over-the-top. The conversations between actors were at times clumsy and halting. On the bright side, the Trio (Monica-Lyn Barron, Ayana Williams, Melinda Capeles Rowe) were very entertaining with their girly-girly smiles and seductive costumes. The voices of Lynette Simmons as the Gospel Singer, and Deidra Davidson as Martha Cratchit were a revelation. More from them, I say. London Lee, costumed as The Champ, was delightfully wry and energetic as Christmas Past. Bryan Perry as Tiny Tim was darling, as were the kids from AACC Children’s Dance Company. The musicians were excellent, and did a great job creating mood and keeping the energy moving.
The PRT has a very good play here that’s obscured by the difficulties mentioned, and I’d like to see it when the difficulties are ironed out.