Caroling to a Different Tune

‘Tis the holiday season, and with it the expected theatrical renditions of A Christmas Carol. The classic tale of generosity triumphing over greediness continues to give a meaningful context to the seemingly retail-dominated tradition of gift-giving, while offering a literary staple in an accessible package. Miracle on Mulberry Street, the brainchild of playwright, actor and acting coach John Pallotta, puts a notably adult twist on the story of Ebenezer Scrooge. The dark comedy is set in a world of prostitutes, cross-dressers and mobsters, and centered on a jaded, middle-aged criminal named Ebenezer Scroogiano (Ezie Cotler).

The large cast—there are more than 30 featured actors—consists mostly of Pallotta’s workshop students, and is markedly inexperienced. From the uneven, sometimes clever script to the modest staging and a raunchy cast of characters, Mulberry Street is a messy affair, although not always negatively so. Despite the obvious flaws in the production, it showcases some promising talents and is at points elevated by the enthusiasm of its cast.

Diversions are expected in a farcical script, but Pallotta’s narrative takes off slowly. Before Scroogiano enters the stage, the audience has been introduced to a singing mobster, a paperboy, two transvestites, a homeless woman and a group of dismayed former girlfriends. We learn that Scroogianno has a habit for stinginess and womanizing, and planned the murder of his deceased business partner, Jacob Marlianni (Luigi Babe Scorcia in a standout performance). The background context is necessary and adds to the story’s humor, but the numerous character introductions, however amusing, give the narrative a rambled, distracted feel before the story even begins.

As Scroogianno, Ezie Cotler turns a likable performance. Although he isn’t quite electrifying enough to immediately draw our interest, he appears to grow into his own as the story progresses. He makes a newcomer’s mistake of obviously focusing his eyes over the heads of the audience and thus revealing his nervousness, but he is nevertheless committed to the character. Cotler delivers his lines with a confidence that shows a flair for improvisation, and isn’t afraid to let out a scream or slam himself into the floor when the script demands it. Scroogianno is a sleaze, as expected, but we root for him.

Numerous diversions from the story offer each cast member a moment in the spotlight (the two rowdy transvestites show up several times, for example), and some performances are obvious standouts. As the Ghost of Christmas Present, Katherine Blair is particularly magnetic. Her role as an aspiring actress trying out for the role is a clever meta-moment in the show. She enters the stage with a crumpled script in hand, speaking to an offstage director, and throws herself into hilariously clichéd warm-up exercises. “Unique New York, Unique New York, Uniquenewyork” she rants while laying onstage. “I’m trying to get my equity card,” she later explains. In a cast of over-the top characters, hers offers a welcome dose of familiarity and authenticity—as well as arguably the only digression from the story that doesn’t feel distracting.

Perhaps the weakest aspect of the production is its sloppily executed stage design. The back wall has a crammed appearance, from misplaced wooden cubes to a nylon suitcase, and hardly brings to mind the home of a wealthy crime lord. Although high production values shouldn’t have been expected, the staging draws unnecessary attention to the fact that Mulberry Street is a largely amateur-driven affair.

Pallotta is able to turn a clever line and create dynamic moments between his characters, but his script attempts to reach into too many directions at once. His number of eccentric characters is excessive, and his tone wavers between goofy and disturbing. In an unsettling scene that should have no place in a comedic work, Scroogianno confronts the hysterical ghost of a woman he killed. Placed in an otherwise boisterous, funny work, the scene feels wildly inappropriate.

Despite the limitations of Miracle on Mulberry Street, one is still likely to admire Pallotta’s devotion to this diverse, inexperienced cast. Offering $20 workshops through Acting4less, he is committed to making stage training accessible to all experience and income levels—and in the most ruthlessly competitive city in the country, this approach is both brave and refreshing.

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