Although Dolly Parton is a goddess, my hopes weren’t high for her musical take on Dickens in Depression-era Tennessee, which began life as a 40-minute “presentation” at her theme park. , Dollywood. No longer deceive me.
Hardscrabble Appalachian life in 1936 has clear parallels to Victorian poverty, and Dolly and Dickens share a mile-wide sentimental streak. His new songs here are all good and sometimes great, and the show is carried with joy and enthusiasm by the tight ensemble and the hoedown band around Robert Bathurst’s gruff Southern Scrooge.
There’s a stronger-than-usual Christian tinge to the story, but also a strong argument for workers — in this case, miners — to unionize to fight predatory capitalism. Which is odd, given that it’s a sincere but commercially motivated attempt to push the Parton brand back into musical theater – after 9 to 5, a West End hit of course – where his camp appeal play well. But that’s it Dolly: always the same, always surprising.
At first, his recorded voiceover tells us to turn off our phones and wishes us a merry Christmas full of “luuurve”, then it’s off. It’s just pit accidents, teenage pregnancies, and moonlight-induced blindness in the backwater of Morton’s Hollow.
Scrooge’s backstory has a tougher side here. Brutalized and in love in his youth, he betrays his kind protector Fustbunch (Fezziwig in the original) and then his greedy mentor, Marley, who owns the town and the mine. After a series of disputes that left several miners shot, Marley hands over his business to his protege. He thinks it’s temporary. Big mistake.
Among the supporting roles, Sarah O’Connor and Carole Stennett stand out as actresses and singers. Fiddler Corey Wickens, leading a tight band steeped in Appalachian folk, plays the Ghost of Christmas Future entirely through his instrument, dressed in a coat Stevie Nicks could envy.
The urban Bathurst, however, is more of a grumpy uncle than an outright misanthrope. Tall and austere with a dovetail cavalry mustache, he looks more like Neville Chamberlain. Although Scrooge and Marley are doomed, the uncritical celebration of poor white Southerners in the 1930s as universally kind and wholesome is difficult to accept even from an ethnically mixed cast. Scott Davis’ set of oil lamps and wood is really just a setting for the action.
Maybe I’m Scroogeish. There are plenty of acts here, from the revivalist Hell to the sweetly simple Three Candles. The three men who created This Christmas Carol with Parton, and director and choreographer Alison Pollard, are not visionaries, but professionals who know what it takes. The story arc works its ruthless power.
The show was developed in Massachusetts and premiered in Boston. This sonically superior but dramatically unatmospheric London production at Queen Elizabeth Hall clearly tests the waters to see if Parton’s fusion of Scrooge’s story with his own legacy has international appeal.
I’m pretty sure this flawed trial will be further honed into a greater triumph. The history of conquering new kingdoms of our heroine suggests that it will be so. Hello Dolly: welcome to the world of musicals.
Queen Elizabeth Hall, to January 8; southbankcentre.co.uk