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Dolly Parton's Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol (Queen Elizabeth Hall)

(seen at the afternoon performance on 24th December 2022)

It is an act of producing bravery to bring an American Theme Park update of a classic Dickensian London tale to its home city for the holiday season. The problems are many, the comparisons inevitable and confidence must be high.

For a start the programme editor and production team cannot agree on a time in which it is set. 1936 small town USA from the stage, 1937 in the programme. The first of several sad misfires which beset the evening.

In episodic and not always well-connected fashion this Scrooge has taken over from Marley as the evil local landowner (“It’s A Wonderful Life” covers the same ground, better) and it is the general store’s owner rather than an undertaker representing the commercial sector.

It really is all Dolly Parton as the lyrics are full of (eventually grating) simple-folksy similes, while the melodies are her usual soft sweet jangle. “Three Candles” is easily the best, with “Appalachian Snowfall” (yes, plastic snow provided) trying hard as well. “Circle of Love” is inspiring, but the problem is the usual one of the songs failing to drive the plot as a musical requires. 

Alison Pollard directs it all at country pace, slow and steady with a little tankard fun in the choreography making a “Down Home Country Christmas” that bit more interesting as the cast strive to save their thumbs.

They make a decent fist of it (last panto standard joke, editor). Robert Bathurst is a Scrooge just getting on with his life. No real bile or evil intent, just little love of his fellow man except Cratchit’s son Tim – a nicely enthusiastic Daniel Lee at this performance.

Cratchit’s father George Maguire is tender in scenes with Mrs Cratchit (Vicki Lee Taylor) but actually scores better given more dramatic meat as Marley, with effective makeup design by Betty Marini.

For her part Vicki Lee Taylor gets to shine in her vocal and dance segments, taking on the role of Amy Sue when not on wife duty.

The constant doubling up of roles does prove repetitive and causes an issue as doubling characters cannot appear in the same scenes; thus outcomes are signalled and plotlines rather more obvious than can always sustain attention.

Scott Davis and Richard Brooker do not help with a set design blocking unnecessarily sightlines from one side of the house and a sound design muffling vocals in the same area respectively.

Andrew Hilton’s on-stage band has a whiff of “Once The Musical” about it, Tim Hayden’s orchestrations in similar cheery form.

It is easy to see the origins of this work as a short theme park presentation designed to be run for perhaps half an hour six times a day. This stretches it almost to breaking point. An interesting experiment which probably needs the home field advantage of Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee rather than a place with several similar competitors (including the infinitely superior Old Vic version just down the road) to come into its own.

This really is not enough for either “A Christmas Carol” or musical theatre fans – the Leslie Bricusse version has a greater variety of tunes as an example. Still, it is a nice idea for a theme park audience and proof that warmth and humanity are the universal ingredients that ensure survival in the least forgiving places anywhere in the world.

3 stars.

Picture credit: Manuel Harlan. Used by kind permission.

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