'Little Dickens' created and performed by Ronnie Burkett

Now onstage at the Marilyn and Charles Baillie Theatre, Berkeley Street, Toronto

Dahlia Katz. Ronnie Burkett pulls the strings in LITTLE DICKENS

Joe Szekeres

Cue the spotlight on Canada’s treasure, Ronnie Burkett, and his Theatre of Marionettes for this wonderfully bizarre ‘Little Dickens’, a most appreciative gift of laughter we all need this Christmas and holiday season.

God bless puppeteer and marionette artist, the flamboyantly energetic raconteur extraordinaire Ronnie Burkett. for making us all heartily laugh.

His ‘Little Dickens’ now playing at the Marilyn and Charles Baillie Theatre on Berkeley Street is sharper, zanier, and far more comedic than it was when I saw the production in Montréal in December 2019, just a few months before Covid hit and changed the world as we know it. He has updated many of the references to current events for the comic effect.

It worked.

Marvellously.

Some things are similar compared to the version I saw in 2019. Burkett still enters in his ugly green Christmas sweater decked out like ‘un beau sapin’ but I immediately bought into it again. On this opening night, he talks to the audience for a few minutes and stated this is the first time he has revisited these characters in three years. Things might proceed in the usual manner but there could or might be some adjustments since the world has changed over the last three years.

The Daisy Theatre (a marionette theatre) is still in its glory with the resplendent bright-coloured curtain emblazoned with the pictures of the central character of the evening, the miserly, bitter, and drunken Esmé Masingill and Little Schnitzel. I could see the outline of the array of marionettes in the darkness on the stage as many of them were also seen in Montréal.

Burkett immediately got the production underway with very little talk to the audience at the top because he knew we were all there for the puppet show. He’s everything in this show – narrator, set changer, curtain puller, emcee. When he takes his well-deserved bow and standing ovation at the end, he’s drenched in sweat from the 90-minute workout.

Be aware: ‘Little Dickens’ is that raunchy, adult-oriented, laugh-out-loud-a-minute show we all need. Burkett pokes fun and satirizes so many current issues that the audience erupted into applause many times throughout. The show still hilariously opens with a strip tease marionette akin to artist Gypsy Rose Lee. What is new is the addition of the marionette Jesus Christ in celebration of his birthday. This practicing Catholic (me) laughed uproariously at that moment. It's not sacrilegious at all.

I must admit when Esmé mentions her preferred pronouns are “Me, myself and fucking I”, I nearly fell out of my seat as my stomach hurt because I was laughing so hard. Burkett will pull people out of the audience to become part of the action of the story. He even got one guy to remove his shirt – whether he was planted there as part of the show or not, I don’t know and I don’t care. Why? The late Olympia Dukakis says in ‘Steel Magnolias’: “Things were getting far too serious, and we needed to laugh.”

And that’s what Ronnie Burkett sets out to do at this performance.

It was a joy and treat to watch him deftly manipulate these marionettes who become alive on the stage. I simply stopped watching Ronnie at the top of the stage and focused on the movement of the marionettes. In the picture above you will see what I mean.

It is Christmas Eve, and we are on the Daisy Theatre stage when super diva Esmé Masingill (a grotesquely garish cross between Gloria Swanson’s and Carol Burnett’s version of Norma Desmond from ‘Sunset Blvd’) berates her stage manager Crachit for the fact there are no audience members in the theatre. When Crachit asks to have Christmas Day off from the theatre to spend time with his family, Esmé continues his belittling but acquiesces with the fact there better be audience members on December 26.

Esmé returns home and meets her arch nemesis of the theatre who has passed on. This individual warns Esmé three spirits will come to visit her and get her to change her destructive prima donna-like tendencies where others can’t stand to be near.

As the spirits visit Esmé, the audience is treated to high camp, vaudevillian humorous shtick with Christmas sing-alongs and audience participation.

So much fun especially when the redeemed Esmé returned for the finale resplendent in a knock-off bright red Bob Mackie gown reminiscent of what Latina entertainer Charo might have worn back in the late 70s and early 80s.

I referred earlier to Little Schnitzel. He plays Tiny Tim and is a delightful cross between Dr. Seuss’s Who from Whoville and bald Donatella Versace complete with a Pebbles Flintstone hair sticking up from his head. I wanted to go up on that stage and still pinch his facial cheeks because he is so darned cute. Schnitzel still reminds us of Dickens’ message that Christmas is for all and still invokes the famous line: “God bless us, everyone.”

Final Comments: I like to think novelist Charles Dickens would be smiling down on Ronnie Burkett for continuing to share the message of what the holiday season was all about. His stamina and energy throughout the ninety-minute sans-intermission show must be applauded.

Get tickets for this. Treat yourselves. Again, a word of advice, this one is not for children. Oops and another bit of advice – make sure you arrive on time at the theatre. When I saw the show in Montréal, Burkett teasingly picked on those who came into the theatre late after the show started.

Don’t be one of them.

Running time: approximately 90 minutes with no intermission.

‘Little Dickens’ runs to December 18 in the Marilyn and Charles Baillie Theatre, 26 Berkeley Street, Toronto.

For tickets, visit canadianstage.com or call 1-416-368-3110.

LITTLE DICKENS created and performed by Ronnie Burkett
Music arranged and produced by John Alcorn
Technical Director and Stage Manager: Crystal Salverda

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