“A Christmas Carol” Is a Poignant, Festive Holiday Treat; Community Spirit Steals the Scene in McCarter’s Annual Production
“A CHRISTMAS CAROL”: Performances are underway for “A Christmas Carol.” Directed by Adam Immerwahr, the play runs through December 31 at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre. Scrooge (Greg Wood, center) joins the company in a celebratory dance. The cast combines professional actors with members of a community ensemble and young ensemble. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)
By Donald H. Sanborn III
McCarter’s annual production of A Christmas Carol is playing at the Matthews Theatre. Adapted by David Thompson and directed by Adam Immerwahr, the show is a warm celebration, both of Christmas and theater. The uniformly talented cast combines professional actors, who are members of Actors’ Equity Association, with nonprofessional performers who comprise a community ensemble (for ages 14 and older) and a young ensemble.
“The central concept of this version of A Christmas Carol is that Scrooge’s behavior has an impact, not just on him, but on all those around him,” Immerwahr says. “He then discovers that has an impact on an entire world of people he had been ignoring this entire time.” [This writer interviewed Immerwahr for “The Children of McCarter Theatre’s A Christmas Carol.” The article appeared in the Holiday 2017 edition of Princeton Magazine, a sister publication of Town Topics.]
To experience the production to the fullest, audiences should arrive well in advance of curtain time. Dressed in costumes that evoke both Dickensian London and glittery gift wrap, adult members of the community ensemble circulate the lobby and café. They are eager to offer background on Dickens, discuss the set, or serenade anyone who is willing to join them in a spirited rendition of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”
The musically festive mood continues right up to curtain time, as the ensemble leads the audience in singing “In Dulci Jubilo.” (Bell ringers begin the second act.) A banner bearing the inscription “London, 1843” has been placed in front of the curtain. The action begins when Scrooge irritably removes the banner; he wants nothing to do with the time or place to which he belongs.
As Scrooge, Greg Wood nimbly finesses the character’s transition from crusty miserliness to childlike joy. Thompson’s adaptation emphasizes the interaction between young and old, and the extent to which that enables Scrooge’s redemption. Correspondingly, Wood’s performance is particularly moving in scenes in which he appears with child members of the cast, particularly Adeline Edwards as the Ghost of Christmas Past, and Roman Engel as Tiny Tim.
Daniel Ostling’s sets and Linda Cho’s costumes are unified in style and color palette. Drab browns and grays — that permeate Scrooge’s office, home, and clothes — are contrasted by red, green, and glittery white. Cho gives a dark cloak both to Old Marley and the Ghost of Christmas Future, underlining Scrooge’s possible fate.
Ostling makes deliberate choices in the level of detail in his sets. Scrooge’s home is dreary but elaborate, while the scenery for the spirit sequences is more economical, permitting the audience to wonder whether those sequences are a figment of Scrooge’s imagination. The setting in which Scrooge meets the Ghost of Christmas Present is evocative of a Christmas card.
Thompson has added a poignant scene in which Scrooge as a boy receives a gift from his sister Fan: a snow globe that is a music box. Fan tells Scrooge that he can enjoy Christmas any time he looks at the music box. He wishes to escape his time and place, and her gift — like theater itself — is a means of doing so. Michael Karnaukh as Boy Scrooge, and Tess Ammerman as Fan, are tender in the scene. The music box will be crucial in a later scene, powerfully rendered by special effects designer Jeremy Chernick and lighting designer Lap Chi Chu.
McCarter has dedicated this year’s production to the memory of composer Michael Friedman (1975-2017). A recipient of the 2007 Obie award for sustained excellence, Friedman wrote the music and lyrics for Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and was the dramaturg for the 2004 revival of A Raisin in the Sun. In addition to A Christmas Carol, Friedman provided underscoring for a 2015 stage adaptation of Misery.
Friedman’s music for A Christmas Carol deftly blends traditional songs with underscoring that by turns is festive and eerie. Celebratory strings give way to foreboding percussion.
This adaptation is not a musical, but Thompson is a librettist (he scripted the recent revue Prince of Broadway), and he knows when to let music and movement advance the story. Like an effective book for a musical, the adaptation often favors emotionally heightened moments over extended expository episodes. Songs provide a fluid transition between scenes. Immerwahr’s staging, aided by Lorin Latarro’s choreography, give key moments the grace of a ballet.
A highlight is the scene in which Scrooge meets Belle, the fiancée who eventually leaves him, and they dance to “Greensleeves.” The dance is performed exquisitely by Zeke Edmonds and Jamila Sabares-Klemm. Immerwahr’s slick use of movement gives other scenes, particularly those in which Scrooge meets the ghosts, an artfully disorienting effect.
As the Ghost of Christmas Past, young Adeline Edwards is coolly matter-of-fact, with just a hint of impatience. Mimi B. Francis is exuberant but caustic as the Ghost of Christmas Present; before we see her, we hear her laugh as the first act ends.
Opposing observations can be made about the two-act structure this adaptation imposes on the story. Intermissions are almost obligatory in live theater, though perhaps unnecessary for this show’s comparatively short running time (an hour and 45 minutes).
On a story level, the intermission seems a bit of an interruption; bridging the two acts with the Ghost of Christmas Present suggests that the plot wants to continue without a break. On the other hand, the Ghosts of Christmas Present and Future spend much of their time drawing Scrooge’s attention to the consequences his behavior holds for Bob Cratchit’s family, so their segments share a common element.
Christopher Livingston is effective in his dual role as the Ghost of Christmas Future and the calculating Young Marley. Michael Genet is fearsome as Old Marley and Old Joe. The cast is well rounded out by Jon Norman Schneider and Jessica Bedford as Bob and Mrs. Cratchit; Jon Hudson Odom as Scrooge’s nephew Fred; Thom Sesma and Anne L. Nathan as Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig; Sue Jin Song as Mrs. Dilber; and Jamai Brown as an excited delivery boy.
Child actors Ayla Delvalle, Amelia Cutter, and Roman Engel help bring warmth to the scenes in the Cratchit home. Xander Kurian, Julianna Pallacan, and Camille Grove are particularly entertaining during a sequence in which guests at Fred’s party play a guessing game. Under Immerwahr’s skillful direction, the child actors give performances that are worthy of their older, more experienced co-stars.
The novel’s grim and morbid themes are not understated, though some plot details have been altered or streamlined. However, the bleakness of Dickensian London is brightened by festive music, an opulent production, and the chemistry between members of a talented cast.
“A Christmas Carol” will play at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre, 91 University Place in Princeton, through December 31. For tickets, show times, and information call (609) 258-2787 or visit mccarter.org.