A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens is a tale that has been done and re-imagined many times over, from films to stage (there’s even a film version by The Muppets). But never did I think a comedy parody set within a Jewish family would be so damn hilarious.
Written by Elise Esther Hearst and Phillip Kavanagh, with direction by Sarah Giles, Melbourne Theatre Company’s latest production, A Very Jewish Christmas Carol is a unique take on the Charles Dickens classic.
Set in a bakery during the festive season, Ely Scroogavitz (Miriam Glaser) has been trying to crack her Bubi’s (grandmother) famous Polish gingerbread recipe for years. Heavily pregnant and blinded by determination, Ely cannot see that the once successful Ada’s Bakery is now on its last leg. And on the eve of the Hanukkah and Christmas holiday, colloquially known as ‘Chrismukkah’, Ely’s family are poised to stage an intervention. Concerned for her wellbeing, mother Fran (Natalie Gamsu), sister Sarah (Emma Jevons), mother-in-law Carol (Louise Siversen) and their Rabbi (Jude Perl), attempt to show Ely the harsh truth. It is time to shut the bakery down but Ely wants to hear nothing of it and kicks them all out.
A retelling of the Charles Dickens classic wouldn’t be complete without all the ghosts. Disappointed in her actions, Ely’s Holocaust-survivor grandmother appears to give her a stern talking to. Bubi, portrayed by Evelyn Krape, is saddened at the demise of her bakery and is determined to set Ely straight. She warns of the impending arrival of the ghosts of past, present, and future, with each ghost a comedic portrayal of a Jewish mythical creature consisting of Louise Siversen as a Dybbuk, Evelyn Krape as Golem and Natalie Gamsu as Lilith. Whilst these are supernatural beings, each are performed with a comedic spin which left me in hysterics.
Right from the start of this show, I was struck with laughter. Jude Perl and Michael Whalley appear on stage dressed as a Dreidel and Christmas Tree respectively, performing a medley of carols with a comedic Jewish/Christian spin on the lyrics. This theme of Jewish and Christian references continued throughout the entirety of the show with the Jewish family and the Christian mother-in-law bickering over the imminent arrival of their grandchild on whether they would be baptised or circumcised, but the subtleties and cleverly placed references in the dialogue. I was thoroughly impressed by the playful use of cultural references and how funny they were. Not to mention, some deep cut pop-culture references to the origins of the word ‘Chrismukkah’. If you’re a fan of tv show The OC, you’ll know exactly what I mean.
Not only is A Very Jewish Christmas Carol gratifyingly hilarious but it’s also emotionally deep and is not afraid to dive into the darker aspects of Jewish history. The supernatural spin using Jewish folklore is very clever, these moments enhanced by wonderful costume designs by Dann Barber with a mixture of scary and childish costumes for each of the three ghosts. These designs are impressive and allow the actors comedic freedom to lean into the physicality of the characters. I mean, what’s not funny about a deer demon trying to open a door handle with their hooves, or a giant gingerbread man’s insatiable need to kill?
The sound and lighting design by Jed Palmer and Richard Vabre respectively also plays a huge part in bringing the supernatural feel of the show to life. The two work in perfect harmony with the minimalist yet effective set design by Jacob Battista, to transport the audience through time as Ely is visited by each ghost.
The cast of A Very Jewish Christmas Carol are great; Michael Whalley is funny yet endearing as Ely’s husband, Jude Perl’s dry humour as the Rabbi is hilarious and I could feel the frustrations of Emma Jevons as the overshadowed sister, Sarah. Miriam Glaser in the lead role of Ely is fantastic and her portrayal of a woman struck with so much grief and loss is brilliant. Her development of the character’s emotional state throughout the show is a sight to see.
However, it was the dual character roles of Natalie Gamsu, Louise Siverson and Evelyn Krape that really stole the show. Siverson is great as the mother-in-law that just wants to be accepted. Carol’s determination to bring Christmas cheer to a Jewish family that doesn’t celebrate the Christian holiday is both hilarious and endearing, just wanting to keep part of her own family’s traditions alive. Siverson’s counterpart as the supernatural Rein-Dybbuk, a reindeer Jewish demon, had me cackling. The dry Aussie humour and physical comedy was flawless.
Natalie Gamsu as the overbearing Jewish mother is both frustrating to watch (in a good way), but also one that is delivered with an underlying sense of love and concern for a daughter that doesn’t want to be helped. Her portrayal of her other character Lilith is dramatic and brings the darker side of the tale to life.
But the clear standout of the production is Evelyn Krape in the dual role of Bubi and the Gingerbread Golem. Her performance of Bubi is loving, funny and heartbreaking. But it is her portrayal of the Gingerbread Golem that had me keeling over in hysterics. I cannot remember the last time I laughed so hard during a show, to the point I was concerned my cackling would annoy the patrons around me, I just couldn’t contain myself. The character is chaotically evil in the most playful way possible. Krape must have the best time playing this character and her ability to switch between the chaos and the deep emotional nature of the two roles is supremely impressive.
A Very Jewish Christmas Carol is a version of the Charles Dickens classic I never knew I needed. It has all the tropes of the original tale with a unique Jewish spin that is delivered with chaos, hilarity, love, and heartbreak. I was extremely impressed. At 1 hour and 45 mins with no interval, the show is perfectly paced and is so well written that an interval would just ruin the experience.
One thing is for sure, after seeing this show, I have an insane craving for gingerbread. I might just have to bake a batch of my own this Chrismukkah.
Melbourne Theatre Company’s A Very Jewish Christmas Carol is on now at Southbank Theatre, The Sumner until December 16th.
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Photography by Pia Johnson.