December 12, 2018

“A Christmas Carol” is an Uplifting Treat for the Holidays; McCarter’s Annual Production Celebrates Community Spirit

“A CHRISTMAS CAROL”: Performances are underway for “A Christmas Carol.” Directed by Adam Immerwahr, the play runs through December 29 at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre. Bob Cratchit (Jon Norman Schneider, second from left) and Mrs. Cratchit (Sharin Martin, back right) celebrate with their children, played by members of the young ensemble (from left): Alexander Perez, Ethan Chang, Romy Johnson, and Alicianna Rodriguez. (Photo by Mark Garvin)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

A Christmas Carol has returned to McCarter Theatre. To fully experience this annual production, audiences should arrive well before curtain time. Dressed in costumes that evoke Dickensian London, adult members of the community ensemble circulate the lobby. They are eager to discuss a model of the set, or to serenade anyone who will join them in a spirited rendition of “Jingle Bells.”

A Christmas Carol has returned to McCarter Theatre. To fully experience this annual production, audiences should arrive well before curtain time. Dressed in costumes that evoke Dickensian London, adult members of the community ensemble circulate the lobby. They are eager to discuss a model of the set, or to serenade anyone who will join them in a spirited rendition of “Jingle Bells.”

Caroling continues after the performance has begun. The ensemble leads the audience in singing “In Dulci Jubilo.” A banner bearing the inscription “London, 1843” is placed in front of the curtain. Ebenezer Scrooge irritably removes the banner; he wants nothing to do with the place or time to which he belongs. Paradoxically, this later helps to redeem him, giving him a way to connect with an important member of his community.

The diverse, 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.  

Giving community thespians the opportunity to perform with seasoned actors would be commendable in any event, but what makes it so effective here is that it illustrates themes inherent in Dickens’ dialogue, particularly Old Marley’s admonition, “It is required of every man that the spirit within him should walk… among his fellow men.” Director Adam Immerwahr’s staging lets the cast do this throughout the production. Audience members periodically find characters next to them in the aisles.

Greg Wood returns to command the stage in the role of Scrooge. Last year I wrote that Wood “nimbly finesses the character’s transition from crusty miserliness to childlike joy.” That remains true, but equally notable is the extent to which Wood’s line delivery reveals Scrooge’s vulnerability. Even before the visits from the ghosts, we realize that painful experiences have shaped his behavior. There also is an emphasis on physicality. Scrooge uses his cane as a bludgeon, and irritably flings his cloak at another character. When he meets Marley’s ghost, he leaps behind the bed. 

Frank X is outstanding in his intense performance as Old Marley. Young Zahra Lohoue is impish but probing as the Ghost of Christmas Past. Adele Batchelder is equally memorable as the merry but acerbic Ghost of Christmas Present. Paul Deo Jr. succeeds in his dual portrayal of the ambitious Young Marley and the eerie, nimble Ghost of Christmas Future.

Sharina Martin shines as Mrs. Cratchit, mixing maternal warmth with firmness and a hint of anger. The cast is well rounded out by Jon Norman Schneider as the gracious, sincere Bob Cratchit; Sue Jin Song as Mrs. Dilber, Scrooge’s equally patient housekeeper; Billy Finn as Fred, Scrooge’s exuberant nephew; Steven Rattazzi and Anne L. Nathan as the generous Fezziwgs; and Sam Roman as the boy Scrooge.

Playwright David Thompson’s adaptation alters or omits some plot details from the novel, particularly those pertaining to Scrooge’s past. Mostly this is beneficial; it keeps the pacing tight, and gives the theatrical elements — especially dance — ample room to advance the story. What remains is a sense that Scrooge is remembering crucial events in his life that have accumulated to embitter him.

More stage time could be given to Scrooge’s sister, Fan, who is given an expressive portrayal by Tess Ammerman. Her segment feels a bit rushed, and seeing more of Scrooge’s boyhood could enhance our understanding of his character. However, it is during Scrooge’s encounter with Fan that she gives him a present: a snow globe that is a music box. She tells him that he can enjoy Christmas any time he looks at it.

This poignant scene is a clever interpolation of Thompson’s; the snow globe becomes an apt metaphor for Scrooge’s Christmas sprit. It will be crucial in a later scene, powerfully rendered by special effects designer Jeremy Chernick and lighting designer Lap Chi Chu. 

The concept of Fan’s gift influences other production elements. For Scrooge’s meeting with the Ghost of Christmas Present, Daniel Ostling’s glittery scenery evokes a snow globe. When Scrooge as a young man dances to “Greensleeves” with Belle, the woman who becomes his fiancée, their dance is graceful but mechanical — like ballerinas in a music box. Exquisitely choreographed by Lorin Latarro, and performed by Zeke Edmonds as Young Scrooge and Kristin Villanueva as Belle, this latter scene remains a highlight of the show.

Traditional songs such as “Greensleeves” and “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” are seamlessly interspersed with the incidental music by the late Michael Friedman. Friedman’s underscoring is by turns joyous, much of it suggests an Irish jig, and foreboding. Late in the show, the orchestra takes up the melody played by the snow globe.

As excellent as the music is, there are moments — particularly in the first act — where it could be a bit softer. At times it can overpower the dialogue, especially lines delivered by child actors.

Young ensemble members Ethan Chang, Alicianna Rodriguez, and Romy Johnson give the scenes in the Cratchit home much of their tenderness. Martin Pallacan is jubilant as Archie, and Uriah Amacker is entertaining as the excited Delivery Boy.

The child actors’ effectiveness is not limited to the sentimental moments. Vyshakh Thejaswi and Julianna Pallacan are eerie as, respectively, Ignorance and Want. The ending of the Ghost of Christmas Present’s segment is at least as unsettling than the scenes that follow.

The grim and morbid aspects of the story are not downplayed, but the joyful moments come from undercutting those darker elements. Linda Cho’s costumes illustrate this; one of the solicitors wears a gray outfit that is accented by red and green. Scrooge’s drab brown coat is contrasted by the bright pink dress worn by Mrs. Fezziwig, a character who is determined to spread Christmas cheer.

Ostling’s scenery makes clear that, although Scrooge later will see his grave, spiritually he already is dead when the story begins. The doorway to his home rises out of the floor, bearing inescapable resemblance to a tombstone. 

The sets are, by turns, detailed and economical. In the past, when Scrooge has his life ahead of him, the stage is bare; when the Ghost of Christmas Past leaves him, his walls oppressively surround him. In the final scene, we see silhouettes of London buildings; his doorway now leads to the community around him.

Lap Chi Chu’s lighting is striking in the latter half of the play, as the Ghost of Christmas Future bolts from one side of the stage to the other. In the final scene, the lighting works in tandem with the scenery and staging to create attractive stage pictures that evoke paintings by artists such as Eastman Johnson.

There is a tender scene at the end in which Wood, and Alexander Perez as Tiny Tim, are particularly moving: Scrooge gives Tiny Tim the snow globe. When we meet Scrooge, he disdains being a part of his time; at the end, he redeems himself by giving away the object that he was told makes it possible — through imagination — to escape the constraints of time and place.

Beside the community interaction, it is with this consistent level of attention to subtext that McCarter Theatre’s A Christmas Carol stands out. There is a satisfying alchemy of theme and production that makes it magical to watch. The show is a festive celebration of community, theater, and the holidays.