Review: Q Brothers Update Dickens With Rap, Rhymes and Plenty of Heart

For a holiday tradition that's Lin-Manuel Miranda meets Charles Dickens, look no further than Q Brothers Christmas Carol at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, on through December 30. Presented at The Yard, the theater's newest, flexible performance space, the venue is decked out as a festive cabaret for the occasion, with cocktail tables on the main floor and more than two miles worth of holiday lights covering nearly every visible surface. A clever interpretation of a classic, the Q Brothers Collective has turned the story of Scrooge into a cautionary tale with a backbeat, condensing it into a brisk 75 minutes that works in hip-hop, reggae, doo-wop and everything in between. Q Brothers Christmas Carol Photo by Liz Lauren, courtesy of Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Collective co-founders GQ and JQ (names one assumes aren't on their birth certificates, but who knows?) co-created and co-direct the show that, with just four actors and a DJ (Kiernan Pereira), flies us through Christmas past, present and future. JQ stands out as the driving force of the troupe, playing no fewer than four different roles (Marley, Belle, Christmas Present and Lil' Tim), a couple of them in the same scene. Postell Pringle carries both Bob and daughter Martha Cratchit as well as Christmas Past, while (in the performance for this review) understudy Jake Samson filled in for Jackson Doran on Fred/Dick Wilkins/Mama Cratchit. Through December 9, John Hoogenakker (currently on Amazon's "Jack Ryan") stars as Ben Scrooge (as he's affectionately known here); Jason Grimm takes over the role for the remainder of the run. Allow yourself time enough to snag a cocktail and settle in before the show; Pereira spins tracks the whole time (and not just Christmas hits, either), ensuring that the energy level is high before even a couplet is spit. And once they are, hold on to your winter hats. J especially channels his best Daveed Diggs to cram in more words per 8-count than either Dickens or Shakespeare could ever imagine, and the surgical precision of every word, every rhyme means not a single sentiment of the original tale is lost in translation. Set and costume designer Scott Davis proves just as inventive with his use of both space and accessories. A simple skyline backdrop on the small thrust stage utilizes basic props (a bench, a bag of money) to give a sense of place, and ample use of wigs (by Melissa Veal), hats, glasses and the like indicate character shifts. At times, there's a whiff of high school talent show about the whole thing, but it's an endearing informality, as these guys are clearly loving every minute of the rush to Scrooge's Christmas morning. The choreography (by Anacron) is plentiful and solid, delivering all the boy band synchronicity your heart desires. All this controlled chaos could risk what's at the core of the classic tale, the lessons of loving the life you have and finding the holiday spirit no matter your circumstances. Thanks to sharp lyrics written to encapsulate the most meaning in the fewest, choicest words (a talent the Qs share with LMM), this Christmas Carol is as poignant as any. And though it's all just this side of sensory overload, by the time Ben wakes up a changed man, you'll be just as jazzed as the crew on stage, ready to boogie your way to the holiday. A Q Brothers' Christmas Carol continues at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier through December 30. Tickets are $32-50. Performances are Tuesday-Sunday, with two performances Saturdays and some Sundays.

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Lisa Trifone