The Carols, a cheerful, corny throwback of a musical by 1812 Productions at Plays & Players Theatre, is pure holiday fare. If you want Christmas, they've got your tree; if you want Hanukkah, they've got your menorah. Written and directed by Jennifer Childs, with music by Monica Stephenson, the show riffs on Dickens' A Christmas Carol while a tuneful, funny cast serve up generous platefuls of nostalgia.
The time is 1944; the place is a VFW hall in a little town in New Jersey, nearly deserted, since all the men are away at war. Three sisters — the Carols (Emily Kleimo, Rachel Camp, and Caroline Dooner) — work there under the bitter eye of Miss Betty (Mary Martello), our Scrooge du jour. Their project is to put on the annual pageant of which Miss Betty (an unfortunately underwritten role) wants no part. Nobody shows up to audition, so it will have to be an all-female cast.
But wait! Here comes an out-of-work Catskills comedian named Melvin Shaatz (Anthony Lawton), telling the world's oldest vaudeville jokes. The show will go on.
Turns out that in good hands, those ancient jokes are still funny. The young people in the audience roared because they'd never heard them before; the old people in the audience roared because they had. The best running gag belongs to natural comedian Caroline Dooner, whose Rose "doesn't believe in silent letters" and therefore pronounces ghost as "gee-host."
Mostly invisible behind the upright piano, TJ Harris provides excellent accompaniment to the songs. The best song — the cleverest lyrics, the catchiest tune — is "Marry an American," which is hilariously irrelevant to both the Dickens story and the Christmas theme.
The show begins with our narrator, Lily (the excellent Rachel Camp, who can tap dance up a storm) warning us that "this is a sentimental story." And sure enough. ... The only bah-humbug I have is that the sublimely ironical Martello is caught in this sentimental show, giving her little room for the dry sardonic she's so good at.
The Carols won't bring a tear to your eye or a lump to your throat the way Dickens can (nobody does sentimental the way Dickens does sentimental), but it will provide a jolly evening in the theater.