Inventive storytelling propels Northlight Theatre's premiere of 'Mr. Dickens' Hat'

  • Cordelia Dewdney plays an intrepid young girl named Kit who thwarts a robbery in Northlight Theatre's premiere of "Mr. Dickens' Hat" by Michael Hollinger.

    Cordelia Dewdney plays an intrepid young girl named Kit who thwarts a robbery in Northlight Theatre's premiere of "Mr. Dickens' Hat" by Michael Hollinger. Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

  • Christine Bunuan plays an aristocrat seeking a new hat from Kasey Foster's hat maker in Northlight Theatre's premiere of "Mr. Dickens' Hat" by Michael Hollinger.

    Christine Bunuan plays an aristocrat seeking a new hat from Kasey Foster's hat maker in Northlight Theatre's premiere of "Mr. Dickens' Hat" by Michael Hollinger. Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

 
 
Updated 12/8/2021 3:39 PM

"Mr. Dickens' Hat" -- ★ ★ ★

"Mr. Dickens' Hat," an engaging play-with-music inspired by Charles Dickens in its world premiere at Northlight Theatre, is a tribute to the art of storytelling and one of its premiere practitioners.

 

The production begins with a kind of prologue as actors step onto a stage filled with stacked boxes along with exposed theatrical rigging and stage lights. Designer William Boles' artful set and Jason Lynch's dusky lighting suggest a space that has stood empty for many months. Uncovering set pieces, unboxing props and costumes, the actor/storytellers appear to be returning after many months away, setting the stage for writer/composer Michael Hollinger's Dickensian tale, which echoes the author's most famous stories, including "A Christmas Carol," from which Hollinger quotes directly. (The play references carolers Fred and Bob, a nod perhaps to Ebenezer's nephew and employee). Like Dickens' "Carol," "Mr. Dickens' Hat" champions charity and compassion. Broadly speaking, it's something of a holiday tale and yet it's suited to every season.

Cordelia Dewdney plays Kit, a young girl working to pay off debts owed by her father (Nick Sandys) in Northlight Theatre's family-friendly play-with-music "Mr. Dickens' Hat."
Cordelia Dewdney plays Kit, a young girl working to pay off debts owed by her father (Nick Sandys) in Northlight Theatre's family-friendly play-with-music "Mr. Dickens' Hat." - Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

Hollinger's play has wit and warmth. In a tip of the hat to the master, he populates it with classic Dickens characters: lonely, bereaved and impoverished folks who, despite their situation, remain hopeful, kind and loyal. Despite the hardships fate and society impose, they persevere and prevail.

There's 12-year-old Kit, a pint-size girl with an outsize heart; her overlooked friend Ned; and Ned's father Mr. Garbleton, a widowed hat maker who insists "beneath our hats we are all the same." There's also widowed milliner Mrs. Prattle, Garbleton's fiance; Kit's loving father, confined to debtors prison; a pair of would-be thieves; an oblivious constable and others. They're played by a first-rate cast -- Christine Bunuan, Cordelia Dewdney, Kasey Foster, Mark David Kaplan, Ruchir Khazanchi and Nick Sandys -- who play multiple characters, with each taking a turn voicing Mrs. Prattle's pet parrot Victoria.

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Northlight Theatre premieres the Charles Dickens' inspired tale "Mr. Dickens' Hat," directed by Lookingglass Theatre's David Catlin.
Northlight Theatre premieres the Charles Dickens' inspired tale "Mr. Dickens' Hat," directed by Lookingglass Theatre's David Catlin. - Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

Hollinger draws inspiration from the true story of a fatal train crash that occurred in England in June 1865. Dickens, a passenger in a first-class car, was uninjured and used his top hat to deliver water to victims. As the play opens, the author's chapeau occupies a place of honor in the hat store where Kit (Dewdney, a sparkling presence) works to earn money to secure her father's (Sandys) release from debtors prison.

The action unfolds on the winter solstice, Dec. 21, 1865, as Kaplan's kindly Garbleton prepares to marry Foster's Mrs. Prattle, who struggles to muster maternal affection for the teenage Ned (Khazanchi). After tending to their final customer, Lady Plume (Bunuan), the couple sets off for the nuptials, leaving Kit and Ned to read "David Copperfield" in the shop's basement. They're oblivious to the descriptively named aspiring criminals Fleece (Sandys) and his annoying accomplice Gnat (Kaplan) who are outside plotting to steal Mr. Dickens' hat for an aristocratic collector.

Mark David Kaplan, second from right, and Nick Sandys, right, play a pair of would-be thieves in Northlight Theatre's "Mr. Dickens' Hat."
Mark David Kaplan, second from right, and Nick Sandys, right, play a pair of would-be thieves in Northlight Theatre's "Mr. Dickens' Hat." - Courtesy of Michael Brosilow
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Director David Catlin's staging is imaginative. The sentiment is subtle, and the comedic bits are funny without being cartoonish. A reflection of the sensibility of his longtime artistic home, the Lookingglass Theatre Company, where Catlin is a founding ensemble member, his direction is visually compelling. Initially, however, it's overwhelming. The exposition and stage business is rather dizzying.

That said, "Mr. Dickens' Hat" is an entertaining theatrical work whose characters, in the play's final moments, encourage audience members to "remember the poor, the sick and the melancholy lest you be preoccupied with daily affairs." The play concludes with a reminder that "there's plenty for everyone when everyone shares."

That sentiment is especially resonant today.

Kit (Cordelia Dewdney) teaches her friend Ned (Ruchir Khazanchi) to read in the 19th-century London-set play-with-music "Mr. Dickens' Hat," running through Jan. 2 at Northlight Theatre.
Kit (Cordelia Dewdney) teaches her friend Ned (Ruchir Khazanchi) to read in the 19th-century London-set play-with-music "Mr. Dickens' Hat," running through Jan. 2 at Northlight Theatre. - Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

• • •

Location: Northlight Theatre, North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie, (847) 673-6300, northlight.org/

Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday; 1 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2:30 ad 8 p.m. Saturday; 2:30 p.m. Sunday, through Jan. 2. Also, 2:30 p.m. Dec. 24 and 7 p.m. Dec. 26. No 7:30 p.m. show Dec. 28; no 2:30 p.m. show Dec. 25 and Jan. 1; no 8 p.m. show Dec. 25. Open caption and audio-described performance 2:30 p.m. Dec. 18; performance for neurodiverse individuals and/or those with sensory sensitivity at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 14

Tickets: $30-$89

Running time: About 95 minutes, no intermission

Parking: In the lot adjacent to the theater

Rating: For all ages

COVID-19 precautions: Proof of vaccination or negative COVID test and masking required

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