'Xmas Remix' revives Dickens

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By Doug Deuchler

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Of all Charles Dickens' 20 or so works, A Christmas Carol has always been the most popular. The 1843 holiday tale featuring ghosts that transform a bitter old miser into a kinder, gentler man has spawned countless productions, starring everyone from Patrick Stewart and Albert Finney to George C. Scott and Mr. Magoo.

Until now, I have never encountered a version in which the key roles of Ebenezer Scrooge, Jacob Marley, Bob Cratchit, and the Three Ghosts are not only portrayed as strong, complicated females, but as Latinas. 16th Street Theater in Berwyn has mounted a very exciting and elaborate production, A Xmas Cuento Remix ("cuento" means tale) by Maya Malan-Gonzalez. Directed by Miguel Nunez, this modern Latinx rendition is full of music and strong performances, and it's really enjoyable.

Isabel Quintero, who played Dolores, the Ebenezer Scrooge character, left the production suddenly during previews to head out of state for a family health issue. Miraculously, she was immediately replaced by Satya Chavez, the show's musical director. Chavez is quite strong in the role, making you believe that she's both a nasty, stingy bar owner in a gentrifying neighborhood, then a reformed and generous new self after being visited by the three spirits. The theater is dedicating this production to Quintero's father.

The show includes holiday songs, often with lyrics bent toward highlighting aspects of the story. Cast members perform with keyboard, guitars, tambourine and other instruments.

Crabby Dolores is hostile about Christmas in the opening scenes. She calls it a "scam," just an excuse to give away money. She's still angry about problems she had with her "loser sister" many years ago. She refuses to help her niece, Anita (Claudia Quesada), whose family is experiencing hard times. Dolores declares she is "not a charity" and advises they seek help from government programs. The reality is Anita and her family may be evicted on Christmas Eve.

The large and lively cast cover a variety of roles. Juan Munoz, for instance, plays Dominique, the "Tiny Tim" child who has serious asthma, but wants more than anything to go to an expensive space camp. Among several other characters, Munoz also plays an unappreciated bartender in wealthy Dolores' establishment.

Christmas carolers are present most of the time just outside the immediate action. They frequently launch into song, punctuating the drama or providing transition.

Emphasis is on the love and strength that comes from family. Like many Latinx families, these characters plan to make tamales for the holiday. Dolores has cut herself off from her relatives, however, due to conflicts when she was much younger. Now she spends her evenings alone, counting her money, always eating by herself. When the ghosts begin to visit, Dolores blames it on some bad Chinese food she ate. She chalks it up to a bad dream brought on by a type of food poisoning.

The entire auditorium is lit with strands of colorful Christmas lights, including some in  the shape of red peppers. The whole show provides a warm holiday glow. Joanna Iwanicka designed the set that incorporates several performance areas.

There are no children in the cast, even though some of the roles are written as kids, and no actors appear to be older. At times it can be a bit disorienting trying to figure out if an actor is supposed to be a kid or a grandpa.

A Xmas Cento Remix is the largest show 16th Street Theater has done to date. It is also the first show of their 13th season.

By the time their next production is ready to open, their new space on Harlem Avenue will, hopefully, be available. I was feeling very sentimental thinking of the many dozens of wonderful shows I'd seen in this old space over the years.

See "A Xmas Cuento Remix" Fridays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays, 4 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m.; and Thursday, Dec. 26, 7:30 p.m., through Dec. 29, at 16th Street Theater, 6420 16th St., Berwyn. $25 to $32; $22, low-income/military/Berwyn residents. Tickets/more: 16thstreettheater.org.

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