By Matthew Nerber
Q Brother’s Christmas Carol, currently running at Chicago Shakespeare’s newly minted Yard, takes the holiday favorite and translates it into a full-fledged hip-hop musical, complete with song, dance, and a live DJ atop a chain-link replica of the Chicago skyline. With scarcely any props and only a few costume changes, four performers dizzyingly portray the characters, both alive and undead, that populate Charles Dickens’ tale of a lonely miser’s snow-filled journey from regret to redemption. It’s the kind of piece that walks a fine-line between parody and adaptation; it winks at the audience, pokes fun at itself, but at the same time treats its source material with just the right amount of earned respect. It is a generous production written and performed by real masters of this type of theatrical remix; the poetry is precise and clever, the jokes sharp, and the choreography consistently delightful.
I think the brothers’ inventions, both musical and otherwise, are better left unspoiled; but I will say that highlights for this writer included one actor’s not so subtle commentary on playing two characters in the same scene, a hilarious and obviously improvised rant delivered by one performer to cover another taking too long to get into place, and Tiny Tim’s mantra-turned-anthem, here hip-hop-icized as ‘God Bless Us Errybody’ and accompanied by a thrilling break dance on a crutch.
The Q Brothers have done a bang-up job distilling the heart of the story into a 75-minute adaptation, but even more, they’ve managed to illuminate and even deepen well-worn territory. I for one didn’t recall Scrooge reeling from the death of his sister in other adaptations, nor how that loss informed his cold heart; here that anguish is shown as the kernel of his famous humbugness, yet another reason why he is unwilling to drop his bleak cynicism and allow love back into his life. It’s a testament to the intelligence of the piece, and really a nice touch.
I do have to say, though, that the show, at least on the opening night performance, took a bit of time to get going: the brothers are so faithful to the skeleton of the story that the set-up feels a bit like a chore. But once all the pieces are locked into place, it flies by at a blink-and-you’ve-missed-it speed. And maybe that’s the point—we all have a little bit of Scrooge in us; sometimes it just takes some slick free-styling and mad DJ skills to warm us up. Merry Christmas, Errybody.
Q Brother’s Christmas Carol is running at The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare Theater until December 31. Tickets start at $30, and can be purchased online or by calling 312-595-5600.