Posts Tagged ‘I heart Christmas Carol’

Review – Neil Bartlett’s A Christmas Carol – Metal Rabbit at Old Red Lion

December 15, 2014

Christmas is here! That means mince pies and pantos and paper crowns and presents! Lots and lots of presents! Spending money and getting things and STUFF and eating and drinking too much and fun!

And that’s it, right?

Or … maybe there’s a little something more to it.

The little bit more is posited in Charles Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol,” which I try to see at least once a year. Its message, which is, in part, that the poor will (probably) always be among us and that caring for them is actually a duty of being human, is one I find extremely relevant these days. As libertarianism, Ayn Randism, and other isms look out upon the poor and label them “scroungers” who deserve what they get, I can’t help but think this Victorian tale sounds as if it could have been written by a modern day Swift who wants to show us the ugliness underlying our opinions.
Christmas Carol

It’s hard not to see how these many adaptations have glammed it up and emphasized the ghosts and the noise and fun of this story: but, thankfully, in this production at the Old Red Lion we get a chance to see the story stripped down like an old piece of furniture: the knots and burls, the joins and the texture all brilliantly visible without layers of paint between us and it. We have six actors: a Scrooge (Alexander McMorran, weep that he does not sing more) and five others, and no Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come at all. The actors move fluidly from role to role, with only Scrooge staying the same.

The effect, in this small theater, is quite intense. We are forced to use our imagination, to see snow in tossed paper, coins in clinked chain, and generosity in handfuls of tinsel. It is a very effective Empty Space aesthetic, which comes home to me most painfully in two scenes. The first is the Cratchits’ Christmas dinner, which is a puffed up paper bag which the five of them tear to bits; their Christmas pudding is revealed, with great to-do, to be an even tinier paper bag, perhaps the size of a fist. It’s all so pathetic, the desperate scrabblings of a family who almost never get to have meat, and who won’t have more than a teaspoon of pudding each: I couldn’t help but think of that damned Baroness who said just a few days ago that poor people don’t eat well because they don’t know how to cook. Even Scrooge is horrified by just how little the Cratchits have to go around, but at least he’s not blaming their want on poor culinary skills.

Later we come to the scene where Scrooge sees a dead man stripped of his burial garments, to his horror. Normally this is done with Scrooge on the side with the Future Ghost watching a fake corpse in a bed, but in a “do less with more” moment we have Scrooge himself lying on the floor, his trousers and jacket being pulled off of him (he hasn’t been in his nightgown as is usual) by human scavengers who praise each other and vilify the man they are denuding. Scrooge’s paralysis, fright, and horror during this scene are palpable; and to have him end the moment wearing just his long johns physically shows us where Scrooge has come to mentally. His walls of protection, his emblems of status, have been taken from him, and now he is but a man, who must consider who he is in light of how he behaves toward other people. He has discovered not just that he is unloved and unwanted, but that he is a source of misery for others; and, indeed, that by his actions he could become far more than just a person who has put yet a bit more money in the bank. He now wants to create something of real value, something that holds meaning even when you stand alone and nearly naked; and to do this, he must act to care for his fellow man. He has been transformed; and in the 70 tight minutes of this show, it is difficult to imagine how more junk or people could have expressed this better. I can only hope that Baroness Jenkin herself might realize that instead of blaming the poor for their struggles, she should try taking direct action to alleviate poverty: to be a little less Marie Antoinette and a little more “God bless us every one.”

(This review is for an opening night performance that took place on Saturday, December 13th, 2014. It continues through January 3rd.)

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Review – A Christmas Carol – Charing Cross Theater

December 20, 2013

Who’d expect there to be two London debuts of Christmas Carol musicals in one year? But so there is, the first a remounting of the popular American one by Menken and Ahrens, the second a home-grown effort making its first showing in the Big Smoke after two regional tours. Last night was the opening of the second, a British-created A Christmas Carol (book by Stephen Leask and Joshua Sills, lyrics Jessica Rufey, Music Patrick Rufey), featuring fourteen songs and a big cast (two rotating casts of five children each!). This is what I went to see at the Charing Cross Theater, and I have to say I was seeing it as a bit of a competition: how would it hold up?

This show sticks pretty closely to Dickens’ story, skipping a few minor details while hitting the majors – Scrooge’s rejection of his first love in favor of money, the Fezziwig’s party, the Cratchits, et cetera. It’s all tied together with music, from the opening crowd scene “Christmas Eve” to “A Life of Regret” and “The Man I Meant to Be.” After seeing the Tabard show’s visibly thin budget, it’s clear that a lot of work has gone into this musical, with multiple costume changes, live accompaniment, and several dance scenes.

But many of the details grate in a way I find less forgiving in a bigger show. The costume designer has made a general sort of Victorian looking clothes, which use fabrics and colors unknown to the period and cuts that range from Gone with the Wind to Mommy Dearest. This seems unbearably sloppy given the wealth of data about clothing of the period. The dance scenes also seem to have been done by someone who’s never done historical research – gentlefolk waltzing in the early 1800s? Can can dancing at a company party? Some attempts at research would have really helped add an air of authenticity. There’s also scrimping on special effects, from the missing Marley knocker (come on, even the no budget Christmas Carol did this) to the Ghost of Christmas present flying moment (which consisted of the actors standing in front of the stage extending their arms, then lights out while they ran to the back of the stage). Much better was the Ghost of Christmas future, a simple black curtain that faces were pressed out of – both spooky and a nice transition to Scrooge waking up in his bedroom, wrapped in the curtain. And the Christmas lights that illuminated the theater when the Ghost of Christmas Present appeared were simply magical.

Unfortunately, this magic did not extend to the music. The songs were melodic but entirely unmemorable, and the decision to have extended child solos in several of the songs was an affront to the ears. And somehow, Tiny Tim’s character was left nearly completely hollow by the script, which never really explained (or showed) why Scrooge was so enamored of him. A Christmas Carol has been to Weston Super Mare, Dunstable, and Bridlington, where it probably easily earned accolades, but in London, it’s in the right place in the Charing Cross Theater. There have been many excellent productions of this story, but this is not one of them, and while it isn’t terrible, it’s not really one to get enthusiastic about.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, December 17th, 2013. It runs through January 4th and was originally reviewed in The Public Reviews.)

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Review – Menken & Ahren’s “A Christmas Carol” (the Musical) – Tabard Theater

December 9, 2013

It seems that, when introducing a musical production of A Christmas Carol, you shouldn’t need to differentiate it by listing the composers, but as there are at least two musical Christmas Carols happening this year, one at the Tabard and a second at the Charing Cross Theater, a “by” line is necessary. I’ll note, though, that the second is not just newly written but not yet opened: this review is for the Menken (Little Shop of Horrors) and Ahrens (Ragtime, Seussical) show, originally written in 1994 and receiving its London debut at the Tabard. For my money (or for £17 of yours), I’d bet on the known quantity over the “we haven’t opened yet but have given ourselves five stars” gang; and with a love of this story and an excitement for seeing a new musical, I was off to the distant reaches of the District line for an afternoon’s fun.

The story is fairly traditional, with a bit more focus on Marley and less on Fezziwig (and school) during the “Christmas Past” scenes, and a much more active Tiny Tim (he somehow limps up a ladder) than I’ve come to expect. The three ghosts are done in a Wizard of Oz fashion, with each of them appearing earlier in the story and then returning to haunt Scrooge later. I loved seeing cheery Fred Ebenezer (Anthony Hott) back on stage to chide Scrooge with his very happiness; but the use of Scrooge’s old girlfriend Emily (Grace Osborn – my apologies if I’ve miscredited this, Dickens’ naming was not followed) as the ghost of Christmas Past was less successful. Although she looked lovely in her fairy light dress, she gave confusing messages by changing character mid-scene. And I genuinely disliked the authorial choice to have the blind woman of the earlier street scenes (Elizabeth Bright) play the ghost of Christmas future – it just ascribes a level of malice to her I found unappetizing and deleterious to the message of this story.

A Christmas Carol (“the musical”) is written in the style of the modern “tuneful” musical (as opposed to the works of Sondheim), although the styling seems very much designed for the screen (big or small) rather than the stage – the words and melodies aren’t given the kind of importance they would normally received in a world free of closeups, and the chorus do a lot to create a setting (complete with movement) rather than being there to make pretty musical experiences for us. I’m not saying there was anything to complain about in terms of the quality of the singing, but I did have high hopes for a new musical and these weren’t met. I was also disappointed with rather more cheerful approach taken for this show than in many of the adaptations I’ve seen. However, it was fun to watch and moved along really quickly, and it did really fill the intimate space of the Tabard straight up to the rafters. I’d say it’s really solid holiday entertainment that is a good buy for £17 – I’m really glad I got the chance to see it.

(This review is for a performance that took place at 2:30 on Sunday, December 8th, 2013. It continues through January 5th.)

Mini-review – A Christmas Carol – Beyond Theatre at Baron’s Court Theatre

December 6, 2013

The Christmas season is now well and fully upon us, with most pantos open and about four hundred different versions of Messiah on offer. In the spirit of December theater going, I decided to scratch my Christmas Carol itch with a performance at the Baron’s Court Pub, which publicity materials had touted as “funny” and “interactive.” My hopes were high, especially given the promised 80 minute running time – hey, if push came to shove, we were already in a pub, so it would just be like a break in a night of holiday drinking.

I think, though, I was not expecting this to be done with in a sketch comedy style. Scenes were constantly interrupted by actors talking off book, we (the audience) were asked to provide background noises (bells, clanking chains), perform (as the guests at Fezziwig’s party, for example), and were being interacted with quite directly by the performers from the moment we walked in the door. I wasn’t really up for this: I didn’t want to hold sausages or play games or otherwise engage in forced jollility. I wasn’t convinced that what was happening was particularly funny and I just wanted to be left alone.

Unfortunately in such a small space this was almost impossible, and with no place to escape it all became rather oppressive. (Have I mentioned I don’t like sketch comedy?) There were some highlights – I did love the special effect they used to create Scrooge’s door knocker (two sheets of paper) and (spoiler alert!) having Bob Marley instead of Jacob Marley was just genius. But so many of the distractions and horsing around just didn’t tickle my funny bone at all, and it made me grumpy. This was my idea of hell: being trapped in a room with five comedians, twenty audience members, and no place to go.

For raw comedy, this didn’t touch the infamous Black Light Christmas Carol I saw in 2004 (child actors drinking and being hostile, I loved it), and it just didn’t really move me the way this story can. So, in summary: bah humbug. Wish me better luck at the Tabard this Sunday.

(This review is for a performance that took place December 5th, 2013. Tonight is the last night.)

Review – A Christmas Carol – Southwark Playhouse

December 13, 2009

Saturday afternoon, J and I headed to Southwark to see a fairly early performance – actually, a matinee, but I mean “early in the run” – of Southwark Playhouse‘s promenade version of “A Christmas Carol.” The ads warned of extreme cold as we walked through the tunnels under London bridge – but I had a far greater fear, of extreme naff as we were, say, paraded past a series of stale vignettes taken from the book, all marred by an excess of enthusiasm and lack of talent from the locally-recruited cast.

I am pleased to say on all accounts my fears were unwarranted. This was a very good show, both as an example of the promenade form and an incarnation of the classic tale, and was blessed by original staging and an utterly brilliant Scrooge. Before I finish my ramblings, let me encourage you to buy tickets now if you are a Christmas Carol fan, as it’s already selling out, the audience size (80) is about half the normal for this venue, and it’s well worth seeing. Word is going to get out fast and I’d hate to think that in the time it took you to read this you missed out on your chance to get tickets.

The event itself starts in the bar, where a nice Victorian three-piece band is making enough merry that I was sorry I hadn’t got there earlier. (We return to the bar during the interval; order your mulled wine in advance.) Various costumed people wander through the crowd wishing us all a happy Christmas; it actually made for a very nice transition into the show, and was a really enjoyable and atmospheric way to pass the time before it started.

We were then herded into the usual auditorium, which was set up with a series of writing desks, to which several audience members were sent to scratch out figures for Ebenezer Scrooge (David Fielder). He blew in and settled in the middle, while a few appropriately clad actors (and one Bob Cratchit, played by Steve Hansell) filled out the rest of the chairs. We audience recruits were actually quite involved with the scene, not just scraping our quills across the ledgers but also whispering (“Put some more coal in the fire!”) to each other, driving the story along. Meanwhile the real actors added vocal atmosphere, going “Tick! Tick! Tick!” as if they were the clock counting down the time to Christmas eve, and filling in other background noises in a unique way that helped us get into the “theater”/”something unusual is going to happen here” mindset.

(The sound design was notably good; I was entranced by the bird song that accompanied the arrival of The Ghost of Christmas Past and found the echoing voices of the various characters added a nice otherworldliness to the goings-on. The singing was also tuneful and appropriate.)

Scrooge’s office was transformed into his home, and then, well, we get Marley (Thomas Padden, heavily chained), and of course the Ghost of Christmas Past (a charming and joyous woman dressed in white, garlanded, and carrying a lightbulb – not quite a torch but, hey, fire regulations), who causes the room to open up and let us move, with the story, into the mysterious depths behind the theater. This was where (to start) Scrooge’s childhood was hidden – simply expressed by a boy in front of a blackboard. The set was sparse yet quite appropriate.

The rest of the show was, well, the story itself, with an admirable adherence to the text – yes, sure, there were some small changes, but Dickens doesn’t need a lot of ornamentation to work. And as the audience we get to dance with the Fezziwigs, eat with the Cratchitts, and … in a spooky scene … walk amongst the gravestones with Ebenezer and the creepy Ghost of Christmas Future. We weren’t watching scenes take place so much as experiencing them, and I found that it really worked. Much of the credit must be given to David Fielder, for I can hardly think of an actor that has more perfectly captured Scrooge’s journey. And we are there right beside him for much of it – he’s incapable of hiding from the audience at any point, as he is on stage for all of it except the interval. What a tour de force! I really bought his experience, from the arrogance of the beginning to the soft joy he felt seeing his happy past to his acceptance and desire to change at the end. While I’ve seen many actors play this role, Fielder seemed formed of the very ink of Dicken’s pen, and I expect all future versions I see will be held up against his standard. Also notable was Trevor Michael Georges as the Ghost of Christmas Present, which had every bit of the booming jollility I expect of this character – and handed out candy to the audience.

Athough there were a few hiccups with what I expect were less experienced actors (credited as the “community cast”), still, this is a show well worth seeing – and to my surprise, it wasn’t nearly as cold in the vaults as I would have expected it to be. Still, wear comfortable shoes, and don’t bother checking your coat … and do get out and see this show.

(This show is for a matinee performance that took place on Saturday, December 12th, 2009. The show runs through January 9th. It’s already sold out through the 28th, so I advise booking ASAP.)

Review – Phil Willmott’s musical “A Christmas Carol” – King’s Head Theatre

December 17, 2008

PLEASED TO SAY THIS REVIEW IS GENERATING PERSONAL ATTACKS ON ME! And thanks for visiting the review of last year’s production of A Christmas Carol. Here’s what I had to say in 2008:

Friday night I went to the official opening of the musical “Christmas Carol” that’s taking place through January 4th at the King’s Head Theatre in Islington. A friend was involved in it and thus I had a bit more awareness than usual about this show – I’d had a peek at the script a few weeks earlier and was almost talked out of going by the use of “In The Hall of the Mountain King” as a sung bit. Still, I had a friend visiting me that night, and she was up for seeing the show with me (and supporting said mutual friend), so off we went.

I’d never seen a show in a pub before, even though I know it’s a fairly common thing in London. The theater, all the way behind the bar (on the main floor), was really small (eighty or so seats) with rather low ceilings. It was also completely jammed with performers – at least twenty were on the stage, in the aisles, or standing off to the sides, chatting and playing musical instruments. It was amazing how full of humanity the little theater was. Still, sightlines in the middle section were good, and I figured with my glass of mulled wine I was sure to be good through an hour and a half no matter what they threw at me.

The trope for this show is that Charles Dickens is trying to sell his publisher on this new book idea of his that he thinks will be incredibly popular (and make money), and he starts telling him the story that is “A Christmas Carol” in a pub in Victorian England, with the idea that if he can capture this audience, his story will surely sell well. This is all good and fine, except … well, I don’t give a rat’s ass about Charles Dickens as a person. Furthermore, I’d just been to the Dickens museum, and the false historical references (his previous novels being a failure and him being any way in financial straights when he wrote “A Christmas Carol”) really irritated me. Please! He was an established, well-to-do writer when he cranked out “Christmas Carol!” My friend was also going nuts because the costumes were a complete hodge-podge of pseudo-Victoriana (and she used to be a costume designer – how was I to know?). The bigger problem for me was that this story doesn’t NEED a framing device – it’s fine all on its own – and the time spent with Dickens took away from the story itself. (Note: Charlie Anson was totally hot, but that’s not the point. If I wanted to ogle him, I’d see him in … hmm … Equus … well, okay, a different show. What plays feature male actors taking it all off besides Equus? I must not be getting out enough to not be able to answer that question quickly. Anyway …)

Historical accuracy having been set aside, would the story at least be followed somewhat faithfully? Well … in my mind, no. I’ve seen a version of “A Christmas Carol” pretty much annually since I saw the Annex Theater version in Seattle some years ago (the one with the positively evil Tiny Tim), and the story isn’t as flexible as this production imagined it might be. To start, Scrooge (a delightfully curmudgeonly Mark Starr) gives no speech about the poor needing to make more of an effort to die, thus “decreasing the surplus population” – a sentiment which I’ve heard expressed nearly verbatim by a friend of mine this very year and one which I think bears regular repeating and thinking about. (It’s ludicrous to say that poor people simply shouldn’t exist and thus aren’t our concern.) Yet despite this, Cratchit (a good looking James Hayward) was out of the house and off for Christmas eve, leaving Scrooge to his lonely apartment, in about five minutes flat.

This gave us plenty of time to have fun with the haunting of Scrooge, but I found the spooky masked singing spooks just … a little too heavy handed, to be honest. This is actually a spooky and fun scene in the book, but I found its subtlety, and Marley’s message, got lost along the way.

And then the ghost of Christmas Past came along … and she was a girl, in a white dress, basically looking to me like a tarted up Miss Havisham. Where were my candles? When in the world did it get decided that she was “Cinderella, that you left behind when you left behind your books” (not a quote)? What a bunch of claptrap! Christmas Past as Cinderella! Yeah, sure, it was cool when they were “flown” over London (really awesome special effect involving not too much effort), but … CINDERELLA. You might as well have made … Tiny Tim the Ghost of Christmas Future. Oh wait, they DID! Forget the traditional image, this show came up with something so entirely ludicrous I found myself sighing and wishing for the finer points of the Stone Soup Theater’s Black Light Christmas Carol of some years past.

Good points: the singing of the cast was really enjoyable, Scrooge’s old girlfriend Belle (Poppy Roe) was really excellent in her scene (actually I enjoyed the whole Fezziwig scene rather a lot, though I thought the “On the First Day of Christmas” at the end was clunky), the tech crew/director did a great job handling some really challenging stuff in a tiny space (I liked the puppetry, and the lighthouse in the “Christmas by the Sea” scene was a treat), and the acting was far better than I would have expected from a space like this.

Overall this wasn’t a horrible show, but … I just think this script isn’t worthy of being produced. It’s not a bad Christmas Carol, and the price is low, so if you’re less particular about things like historical accuracy and fidelity to the text, you may enjoy it. Me, well, I can’t help but think fondly of the amazing South African “Christmas Carol” I saw last year, that captured all of the message of the story and fully bent and played with the structure while still feeling one hundred percent right. Oh well.

(This review is for a performance on Friday, December 12, 2008.)

Ikrismas Kherol – The Young Vic

December 11, 2007

So – the South African Christmas Carol that I saw at the Young Vic last night (December 10th, 2007) was really good. The description is “set in modern South Africa, with Scrooge a woman who runs a mine.”

Well. The show opened with the “miners” in the “mine shafts” (the catwalks over the stage), clanging and stomping and singing as they finished off their shift, moving into a big central area for a mining pantomime, then heading “up the elevator” to the surface where they sang some more and danced and horsed around, jumping and slapping their boots and … well, the songs, they actually had that kind of “Working on the Railroad” sound to them, like actual mining songs, and while I’m sure miners don’t normally do any kind of synchronized dancing on payday, I loved the energy these guys had. I kept thinking, Billy Elliot, eat your heart out! This show was ten times more tuneful and had much better choreography.

That said, what I really liked about this show was its emotional impact. By setting it in a country where abuse of labor is much more free and poverty much more dire than, say, the US or the UK at present, Scrooge’s selfishness and indifference to others was thrown into much higher relief. At home, someone who says they’d rather not give money to pay a child’s school expenses because “people shouldn’t have kids if they can’t afford them” wouldn’t actually be condemning said child to not go to school; someone who refused to give to a charity kitchen and said that it would be better that the poor should die “and decrease the surplus population” would be seen as being tacky but not leading to other people’s deaths through his or her inaction. (In some cases, I think, this sort of person would just be the typical anti-tax, John Galt, “poor people are lazy” kind of person that thinks he’s actually quite moral and ultimately creating a better society through his “virture of selfishness.”)

But it was clear that in South Africa, without someone to pay the bills for medicine, sick people die in their beds, the poor (especially children) eat garbage until they starve, and prostitution – even if it leads to your own early death – may be the only way to get any of that damned, desperate money you need so very much just to get through to the next day. Did you throw women out of work so that you could sell the land their factory sits upon? Then you may have ruined all of their lives and that of their children and every single person who depended on them to get them a meal and shelter. Even if what you did was just the “free market” acting to “maximize revenue potential,” it was still immoral, and to say there was no reason for you not to do it because “it’s enough for a man to understand his own business” doesn’t excuse it. Invisible hand, my ass.

Sadly, it’s been the Victorian setting of all of the “Christmas Carol”s I’ve seen in the past that kept Scrooge as just a curmudgeon in my eyes rather than a person whose claim that “It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s” covers a genuine black hole in his heart. When you look at everyone who’s not as rich as you, who’s not as well-dressed, well-spoken or well-educated as you, and say, “That person, their fate has nothing to do with me, and it’s not my business to try to effect any difference in their life even if it might be in my power to do so,” you are spreading a selfish evil through the world and failing to recognize the web that connects all of us.

At any rate, the story telling power and musical prowess of last night’s Christmas Carol was truly amazing. I was exhilirated and moved, and I stood and clapped my heart out at the end, which I almost never do because I’ve seen lots of theater and it usually doesn’t touch me like this did. Get up and go see it, watch the “Christmas Present” scene of people dancing at at street party in the township, and tell me your view on this story has not been permanently changed.

Black Light “Christmas Carol” – Stone Soup Theatre, Seattle

December 17, 2004

My night started when we (J, my brother, and I) trooped into Stone Soup Theater for the poorly advertised (and yet sold out) Black Light Christmas Carol. I admit, I did not tell them that the cast was composed entirely of children, but I figured that if it was only 45 – 60 minutes long (“depending on how long the cast improvises” said the ads), we had little to lose.

In fact, the show was hysterical. From the antics of the audience (farting, waving program visibly during fog scene) to the extremely gay (and yet still only 8 years old) Fezziwig to the bizarre appearance of Aladdin and the Three Musketeers, I found it a riot. Especially rich was the scene in which 10 year old Bob Cratchitt poured “gin and lemons” to his five children (I checked, this is in the book!), including a huge snifter to Tiny Tim, and the seven actors all drank it and made gagging noises (this, not in the book).

Scrooge was cross-cast as a 14 year old female “Aunt Ebeneza,” which facilitated a fantastic, yet, I believe, accidental scene at the end of the show in which a much younger boy admonished her to “Go out and be the best man (stares with actress with dread…) or woman … you can be.” There also took place this fantastic exchange, when she returned to her bedchamber where the fluorescent yellow Ebeneza Scrooge tombstone remained in its place from the previous scene. A strange boy appeared from behind the curtains and, as if it intentional, moved the tombstone behind its stand. Ebeneza finally turned to face him. “What day is it?” In his horrible English accent, the young boy responded, “Die?” (“Yes, Die, we all shall Die! Did you not notice your tombstone in your bedroom?”) As if correcting his horrible pronunciation, the actress repeated, “Yes, what day!” The answer of course was “Christmas Die,” the holiday we have all come to dread.

As the show came to an end and the actors took their bows (and hit each other), little tears had beaded up in my eyes … and yet not for the reason the cast might have intended. (In the Q&A session afterwards, one girl responded that the lesson she’d learned from doing the show was that “Christmas wasn’t just about getting stuff … it was about hanging out with people and eating, too.”)

(This review was migrated from another blog. This show took place on December 17, 2004.)