A CHRISTMAS CAROL (McCarter): One for past and present, but unfortunately not future

Excerpted by kind permission from Neals Paper

Billy Finn (left) and Graeme Malcolm in A CHRISTMAS CAROL. Photo by T Charles Erickson)
Billy Finn (left) and Graeme Malcolm in A CHRISTMAS CAROL. Photo by T Charles Erickson)

It’s bittersweet to think of McCarter retiring this classy, affecting, and opulent staging of Dickens’s Christmas classic. I guess 15 years became a point of diminishing audience returns rather a milestone of a tradition. A new CHRISTMAS CAROL is in the works for 2016. I, for one, wish tradition could prevail in this been-there, done-that world.

David Thompson’s script is a gem, and Michael Unger’s current staging is a sign that this show is ageproof and can seem fresh year after year. Even Graeme Malcolm’s fifth or sixth appearance as Scrooge seems newly minted as opposed to renewed. Ming Cho Lee’s set creates atmosphere from the minute it appears, The dark and smoky look of the London streetscape, St. Paul’s and all, sets up the dreariness of Scrooge’s counting house and home and offsets the easy merriment of the Fezziwigs’ establishment.

The handsome scenery and appropriate mood it conjures is only the beginning. Thompson, like Dickens, is a master storyteller. He combines humor and sentiment well, showing Scrooge to be as comic as he is cruel and flippant and keeping the rest of London from being overly treacly. He humanizes Scrooge against the skinflint’s will or expectation by reminding him of when people, feelings, and associations mattered to him. The Fezziwigs are not only comic relief. They show a way of life that is comfortable and full of joy while putting money in a perspective Scrooge, as he ages, can less and less fathom.

This is a smart production that uses the generous elements Dickens provides with wisdom, making points while remaining entertaining, as the master writer of Doughty Street did. Malcolm gives insight into Scrooges past as a ghost accompanies Scrooge through Christmases past. To Unger’s credit, this never seems comme il faut. You get no sense that you know this story by heart and don’t need to be told or shown it. On the contrary, the glory of theater takes over. This McCarter CHRISTMAS CAROL is a full play of its own. It engages you entirely. You may be able to recite Dickens verbatim, and you will still be absorbed in this production as it unfolds before you. There’s no suggestion that this stuff is so familiar, we don’t have to perform with depth and detail.

A CHRISTMAS CAROL is realized as a genuine work of theater. Even portions that include comedy and fantasy work well because they’re done with judgment and taste. In the midst of everything, the appearances of ghosts as well as Scrooge’s real refusal to aid the needy while English taxes support prisons and workhouses, you believe you are seeing genuine people going about their lives in Victorian London rather than stick figures blithely acting out a popular story.

Malcolm makes you see the softer side of Scrooge by acting naturalistically and not exaggerating, pandering, or being self-consciously obvious. Conversely, when he goes into a spry caper as the Fezziwigs’ gaiety becomes infectious, you see a Scrooge who has generously lost his inhibitions and gruffness and who appreciates the sprightly tone of the occasion.

Everyone in the cast follows Malcolm’s suit. All performances have dimensional and authentic human scale and grace. Of course when the 12-foot-tall ghost of Christmas Yet to Be appears, or the ghost of Christmas Present makes an entrance cackling and reeking of joy, the naturalistic shell is broken, but in ways that are theatrically creative and consistent.

Allen E. Reed’s Bob Cratchit shows no cringing servility towards Scrooge and no resentment towards low wages that are the lot of many Londoners and the wish of many who cannot find employment. Like Reed, James Ludwig, as Scrooge’s nephew, Fan’s son, Fred, carries himself in a way that eschews being too daunted by Scrooge’s bark or more than minimally upset that his uncle cannot enjoy Christmas spirit. In the same way, Bradley Mott and Kathy Fitzgerald show the flamboyance of the Fezziwigs but never take matters to a level that seems outlandish or clownish.

Unger asks for a tone of reality, and his cast gives it to him. Notable among that number, in addition to those mentioned, are January LaVoy as a down-to-earth Mrs. Crachit, Leah Anderson as Scrooge’s sincerely inviting niece by marriage, Lily, Allison Bucks and Kathy Fitzgerald as wealthy women collecting money for the poor, and Jonas Hinsdale as Tiny Tim. I also enjoyed Troy Vallery’s turn as a poulterer’s delivery boy straining with the weight of the giant turkey Scrooge buys for the Cratchits. Music, by Michael Starobin, and dance, by Rob Ashford, are excellent. Read more on Neals Paper >>>

[McCarter Theatre, University Place and College Avenue, Princeton, N.J.] December 4-27, 2015; mccarter.org.

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