"We’re offering Inspecting Carol as an antidote to ‘A Christmas Carol,’" announces George Street Playhouse artistic director David Saint to the capacity opening night audience who responded with appreciative applause and laughter. Many obviously remember the fun that they had seeing this riotous farce when it was first presented at GSP in 1998. Although this production is making an unprecedented return engagement, it probably won’t challenge the classic Dickens story as a holiday perennial. Based on audience reaction, the only challenge was not to fall out of your seat laughing. Since we haven’t succumbed to this treat of bountiful silliness since 1998, it is good to welcome it back. Originally developed in 1992 by the Seattle Repertory Theater, "Inspecting Carol" was written by Seattle Rep’s artistic director Daniel Sullivan, whose inspiration for the play came from Gogol’s "The Inspector General." Saint is once again at the helm, pushing a company of expert farceurs to the limits and beyond.

Like the Russian "Inspector General," the plot of "Inspecting Carol" centers on a stranger who comes to town and is mistaken by everyone for a government official. It also has hints of the British comedy, "Noises Off," in which a play falls into chaos during its run due to the disintegrating relationships of the actors. At the start of "Inspecting Carol," the cast and crew of the Soapbox Playhouse, a professional regional Equity theater, are attempting, without much success, to get through a preliminary rehearsal of Dickens’ "A Christmas Carol." A lot is riding on the success of this annual production, the only one that seems to make money for the struggling company. As if the news from Kevin (Wally Dunn), the company’s managing director, that subscriptions have fallen off by 50 percent isn’t bad enough, he also informs the company’s highly strung artistic director Zorah Bloch (Catherine Cox) that the National Endowment of the Arts has decided to hold off a grant of $30,000 in the event of a "significant artistic deficit" report from an inspector. "What do they want – quality?" asks a frantic Bloch when she is told that the inspector is expected to arrive in time for the final dress rehearsal.

There is much desperation as well as a sense of panic in the air as Bloch tries to remain in control of a production that seems hopelessly bogged down by minutia, including a complaint about the ugly wooden turkey. Then there are the actors’ personal idiosyncrasies to deal with as well as a Tiny Tim (Christopher J. Stewart) who has grown too tall and healthy since last year. "I’m a very emotional person," screams Bloch, as she tries, with the help of the determinedly cool calm and collected stage manager (Mary Catherine Wright) to take charge of the havoc at hand and face the possibility of not getting the grant.

Peter Scolari, perhaps most recognizable to audiences as Tom Hanks’ sidekick in the long-running TV series "Bosom Buddies," plays Wayne Wellacre, a young and notably untalented actor, who arrives and auditions, grotesquely posturing his way through the "my kingdom for a horse" speech from "Richard III." The Soapbox Players decide that no real actor could be this bad. Everyone is convinced that he is the inspector, and so they favor his every wish, including re-writes of the script, heretofore the domain of Larry Vauxhall (Dan Lauria), the company’s Scrooge and resident political activist. Larry has been known to blurt out Scrooge’s lines in Spanish to protest American involvement in South America. Bloch’s willingness to seduce Wayne in the process does not sit well with Phil Hewlit (Michael Mastro), the company’s fidgety Bob Cratchit, who not only suffers the pain of his own little fling with Bloch but suffers stoically from an injured back from carrying the overweight Tiny Tim. Throughout the rehearsals, Bloch justifies her anger, her impassioned actions and reactions to everything that is happening with, "I’m a Lithuanian!"

Of course, this all builds towards the final dress rehearsal, when, as you might expect, everything that can go wrong does, and leads to a climax that many will consider second only to the destruction of the hall of the Gibichungs in Wagner’s "Gotterdammerung." The action, nonsensical in the extreme, could only work in the hands of a director as committed to the reality of farce as is Saint and to actors who not only embrace their preposterous predicaments with skill but also adorn their roles with conviction. You will be hard pressed not to experience the terror that company newcomer Walter E. Parson (Randy Donaldson) feels as he gets a case of paralyzing stage fright in his hilariously-costumed appearances as the various ghosts.

MacIntyre Dixon and Peggy Cosgrove are terrific as Soapbox founders and seasoned actors. Dixon gets high marks as Marley’s ghost, whose chains prove to be an unexpected menace. Cosgrove is a riot when she is asked to lose her British accent and affect one that is more American for her role as an unusually bawdy Mrs. Cratchit. As the company’s voice coach, Cosgrove has the company go through a warm-up exercise that must be seen to be appreciated.

R. Michael Miller’s Dickensian setting, with its astonishing ability to become actively alive, had the look of a pop-up story book. Brenda King’s costumes ran the gamut from wacky to whimsical and were expertly enhanced by Christopher J. Bailey’s lighting. Throughout the run, a number of New Jersey celebrities will portray the pivotal role of the real inspector, Betty Andrews. On opening night, the role was played (with aplomb) by New Jersey State Senator Barbara Buono.

– Simon Saltzman

"Inspecting Carol," through Saturday, December 31, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. 732-246-7717 or www.GSPonline.org

Leave it to Shakespeare to bring us hope at the holiday season. At the end of "As You Like It," a band of patriots are made "joyous" when they receive news that they can return to their homeland after being forced to live in exile by the usurper to the throne and his corrupt government. Don’t worry. Director Bonnie J. Monte has not updated the action to present day Canada in the current production at the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey, running through Saturday, December 31. The political inferences are in accord with the well-balanced resolution that Shakespeare so good-naturedly submitted. The costumes, designed by Hugh Hanson, however, suggest a period somewhere between the 19th century and your high school prom.

There is an adjustment of seasons in keeping with the time of year. The Midlands Forest of Arden is now filled with hanging strands of crocheted frosty-looking snowflakes that move with a touch like fragile trees. In the forest, the exiles have found refuge while continuing to embrace life with both expectation and sophistication. It is also here that the work of set designer Michael Schweikardt is most appreciated in his otherwise bleak vision of this play that essentially still mirrors the political tensions as they existed in

1600 England.

However, the dirty political doings are only an excuse for a masquerading Rosalind (Victoria Mack) to win the easily duped Orlando; the devoted Celia to beguile the wicked Oliver; the "roynish" Touchstone to seduce the provocative Audrey; and the disdainful Phebe to settle for the lovesick Silvius. Far be it from me to say whether or not they will all be united in wedded bliss before it is time for us to go home.

Although I can’t imagine purists objecting to the lack of the usually obligatory greenwood tree, there may be some who may find this production a bit chilly, too long at three hours. It is also not quite as warming or as winning as it might be in accord with the play’s transformation of character theme. There is ample use of music in the forest for both singing and dancing and it is well done. The traditional songs, mostly consigned to the personable MacAdam Smith, who plays the troubadour Amiens, balance the mood of melancholia that the cynical Jaques (Scott Wentworth) seems so intent on rhapsodizing. As with his "seven ages of man" lecture, Wentworth can be commended for delivering the most impressive, persuasive, and most poetic performance, virtually owning the stage when he is on it.

The lovers and other strangers have both the humor and the philosophy of the play to uphold. Kevin Isola may be slight in stature but he affords the feisty Orlando a boyishly sturdy energy. The show essentially belongs to the masquerading Rosalind and a vivacious Victoria Mack doesn’t disappoint as the by-love-possessed daughter of the banished Duke. Rebecca Bellingham is similarly beguiling as her cousin and devoted friend. A quibble could be made that Mack and Bellingham appear too similar in type, despite their different hair colors. Except when Mack is in male attire, they tend to look like Barbie dolls, maybe even then. The tedious court jester, Touchstone, has a tendency to go on too long on every subject (grab the pruning shears) and Mark Mineart’s minimally amusing performance doesn’t alter my view. He does affect a few sly looks in his pursuit of the country wench Audrey (played with spirit by Colleen Piquette).

Good impressions are made by Clark Carmichael, as Orlando’s very bad older brother Oliver and Richard Bourg, as the noble and banished Duke Senior. Larry Swansen is touching as Adam, Orlando’s faithful old servant, and Tarah Flanagan has fun with her role as the shepherdess Phebe who cannot help deriding the lovesick Silvius (Patrick Toon). A rousing wrestling match between Orlando and the court wrestler Charles (Nathan Kaufman) is especially well-staged by fight director Rick Sordelet and deserving of the round of applause it received. Except for the play’s tendency toward tedium, Monte’s respectful, if not necessarily adventurous, staging takes its pleasure in all the "country copulations."

– Simon Saltzman

"As You Like It," through Saturday, December 31, Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison. 973-408-5600 or www.ShakespeareNJ.org.

Do not miss "Cookin’ at the Cookery," now in a limited run at Crossroads Theater Company in New Brunswick through Sunday, December. When the show played in Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Times wrote called it "a production so hot, west LA is sizzling."

Although Crossroads won a Tony Award in 1999 for the Best Regional Theatre in America, awards don’t guarantee solvency. Crossroads has been dark for most of the past five years, working to dig out of its financial hole. Now it’s back. But still digging.

"Cookin’ at the Cookery" is a one character, two actor show depicting the music and times of blues legend Alberta Hunter. Born in Memphis in 1895, then moving to Chicago, Hunter was in New York by 1921 and moved on from there to world stages. Her career flourished from the 1920s to the ’40s, recording with greats such as Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle during the years of the Harlem Renaissance. She performed in the original "Showboat" with Paul Robeson in 1928; abroad she sang on the same stages as Josephine Baker. She sang for kings and queens.

The musical stars Gretha Boston, who won a Tony for her role in "Showboat" (1995) and won another Tony and was a Drama Desk Nominee for Best Featured Actress in the musical "It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues" (1999). Boston plays the grown Alberta (and sometimes young Alberta’s mother).

The versatile singer and comedian Janice Lorraine plays the young Alberta at various stages of childhood (and does vignettes of several other characters, male and female). Lorraine grew up in Newark and is a graduate of Arts High School. She has her own string of Broadway credits including "Grease" with Rosie O’Donnell, "Jelly’s Last Jam" with Gregory Hines, "Ragtime," and more.

Small and wiry, Lorraine has a face that must be made of rubber, her speaking voice is that of a ventriloquist, and she executes what must be the fastest costume changes in stage history (complete with changed wigs). The excellent costumes were designed by Marilyn Wall, the fine wigs by Bettie Rogers.

The musical is not merely nightclub songs strung loosely together. Between the songs both actors, often in dialogue, narrate Alberta’s experiences, making this a scan of Hunter’s life.

Writer, director and choreographer Author Marion J. Caffey began as a song and dance man and now dedicates himself to conception, writing, and directing. "Cookin’" was born when Caffey saw a documentary on Alberta Hunter on PBS and wanted to let others know about the spunk and spirit of this woman. His most recent creation was the world premiere of "Three Mo’ Divas" at San Diego Repertory Theater.

Hunter sang for American troops in World War II and Korea, and she later realized her childhood dream of singing at the White House, singing for President Jimmy Carter. Not only are the two Albertas’ singing rousing, vibrant, joyous, it can be sad and moving, such as when the adult Hunter learns her mother is dead.

The stage set is simple. A three-piece band is raised behind the action, an upright piano is on stage level. Scene changes are executed with projected designs of light. You know you are at the Cookery – yes, there really is a Cookery, in Greenwich Village, New York – because projected light spells out the word.

The show moves fluidly from Alberta’s childhood to her early years to Chicago, where she drew audiences to the Dreamland Club, then on to New York. The script evades nothing, touching on the grown Alberta’s sexual choices and on ever-present underlying racism. The show’s 14 songs span from gospel to blues to jazz.

Wit and humor shine throughout. Alberta’s father "died of stupidity"; he caught it from another woman. In the 1929 crash "white people were jumping out of windows and colored people were jumping out of basements." And when being considered for a job, Hunter is told she’s not "light enough." Thinking skin color, Hunter is indignant at this supposed slight from another colored person; the remark is about her weight.

By the 1950’s Alberta Hunter was out of work. She lied about her age, saying she was 12 years younger then she was, and became a nurse; she stopped singing for 20 years. At 82 Hunter made a comeback, performing 15 shows a week. She became a hit at the Cookery in and went on to release two new classic blues albums. She died in 1984 at age 89.

On opening night the entire audience gave the show a standing ovation. I wish I’d had stilts.

– Joan Crespi

Cookin’ at the Cookery, through Sunday, December 11, Crossroads Theater, 7 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. The music and times of blues legend Alberta Hunter. 732-545-8100.

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