December 18, 2019

“A Christmas Carol” Returns to Delight Audiences at McCarter Theatre; Festive Production Brings Music and Community Spirit for the Holidays

“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. Tiny Tim (Aria Song, left) receives a special gift from Scrooge (Greg Wood). (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

To fully experience McCarter’s annual production of A Christmas Carol, audiences should arrive at least 15 minutes before curtain time. Dressed in Linda Cho’s opulent costumes, which evoke Dickensian London, members of the community ensemble circulate the lobbies, ready to serenade anyone who will join them in a rendition of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” The caroling provides a seamless segue into the start of the show, as the performers exuberantly lead the audience in singing “In Dulci Jubilo.”

McCarter’s diverse and talented cast combines professional actors with nonprofessional performers who comprise a community ensemble (for ages 14 and older), and a young ensemble.

Old Marley’s ghost warns Scrooge, “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 literally, as audience members periodically find characters standing next to them.

A banner bearing the inscription “London, 1843” is placed in front of the curtain. Scrooge climbs on stage and irritably tells the onstage carolers — and us — to stop singing. Then he disdainfully removes the banner.

Greg Wood returns to give a layered performance as Scrooge. Previously I have written that Wood “nimbly finesses the character’s transition from crusty miserliness to childlike joy.” That remains true, but what is notable this time is a mixture of palpable sadness and subtle, wry self-aware humor buried underneath the gruffness.

The necessity of connecting with one’s community is a theme inherent in Dickens’ novel; it is articulated in the wailing admonition delivered by Old Marley, who is infused with eerie pathos by Frank X: “Business? Mankind was my business!”

David Thompson’s script emphasizes this theme, supported by Immerwahr’s staging. Throughout most of the show, the characters played by the community ensemble are warmly jovial. Toward the end of the Ghost of Christmas Present’s segment, however, their role takes on a menacing tone. This includes the children — among them Uriah Amacker as Ignorance, and Sanya Bhatt as Want — in a sequence that is as creepy as the scenes immediately following it, in which Scrooge is surrounded by the community he has neglected.

Seeing the production multiple times gives audiences a chance to notice details they might previously have missed. One aspect of Immerwahr’s direction that stands out involves the scenes in which Scrooge interacts with children.

A notable example is the Ghost of Christmas Past, whom child actor Alicianna Rodriguez portrays with innocent gentleness mixed with stern coolness. Immerwahr pays close attention to vertical levels, finding ways to make the spirit’s height on a level with that of Scrooge — either by letting the spirit perch on a shelf, or by making Scrooge crouch down.

This concept is developed in the scenes involving the mirthful but often acerbic Ghost of Christmas Present, played by Chandler Miller. The spirit pointedly addresses Scrooge as “little man.”

Thompson’s adaptation alters or omits some plot details from the novel, especially those pertaining to Scrooge’s past. More stage time could be given to Fan (Lauryn Morgan Thomas), as her scenes feel somewhat rushed. Seeing more of Scrooge’s childhood could give us additional insights into his character, and give the actor who plays Scrooge as a boy — Sam Roman in this year’s production — a bit more to do.

On the whole, however, Thompson’s edits serve this version well. The tight pacing allows time for the production elements, including Lorin Latarro’s choreography, to do their part in retelling the story. Notable highlights include a graceful scene in which Young Scrooge (A.J. Shively) dances to “Greensleeves” with Belle, his future fiancée; and an exuberant jig, which Scrooge dances with the entire company, near the end of the first act.

Ultimately, details from the early part of Scrooge’s life are less important than the fact that painful experiences have accumulated to embitter him. In particular we see the extent to which the ambitious young Marley — infused with a cynical imperiousness by Paul Deo, Jr. — has been a corrupting influence.

Deo also plays the Ghost of Christmas Future, who nimbly darts across the stage (in a sequence whose spookiness is enhanced by Darron L. West’s sound design and Lap Chi Chu’s lighting). This is an interesting bit of dual casting, as the purpose of the spirits’ visit is to save Scrooge from Marley’s fate. Andrea Goss is charming in a dual role of Belle and Lily, the new wife of Scrooge’s nephew Fred. This dual role also is astute, because Fred has the happily married life that Scrooge allows himself to lose.

As the business relationship between Scrooge and Marley develops, it destroys Scrooge’s relationships with Belle and the generous Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig (Steven Rattazzi and Twinkle Burke), who see Scrooge transform from a somber but appreciative apprentice to a hardened businessman who takes part in an attempt to take their life’s work away from them.

We discover that when Scrooge was a boy his sister, Fan, gave him a gift: a snow globe, which offered an escape from the time and place to which he belongs — at least in his imagination. Eventually he gets the opportunity to share this gift, and bond with Tiny Tim.

The snow globe, which is also a music box, is a plot element added by Thompson. Fan’s gift will be crucial in a later scene, powerfully rendered by special effects designer Jeremy Chernick. For most of the scenes involving the Ghost of Christmas Present, Daniel Ostling’s scenery covers the sky with a snowy glaze, and fills the stage with pine trees. It is tempting to theorize that for this part of the play, the action takes place inside the snow globe.

Repeat viewings offer the chance to appreciate more fully Michael Friedman’s score, which seamlessly connects with the traditional carols. Sustained strings, which heighten the suspense of the moments preceding the arrival of Marley’s ghost, give way to the ethereal bells that accompany the Ghost of Christmas Past. A sequence late in the show, in which the underscoring continues the melody started by the music box, is a deft touch.

Billy Finn’s portrayal of Fred aptly mixes the requisite affability with a hint of budding resentment at Scrooge’s behavior. Sharina Martin excels as Mrs. Cratchit; her performance is the needed combination of maternal warmth with a distinct hint of anger. Jon Norman Schneider is adept in the role of the kindly Bob Cratchit, and Jo Twiss is capable as Mrs. Dilber, Scrooge’s patient housekeeper.

Young ensemble members Emre Celik, Isabella Rodriguez, and Syra Bhatt help make the scenes in the Cratchit home tender but not maudlin. The same is true of Aria Song, who plays Tiny Tim. The cast is ably rounded out by Myla Delvalle as Margaret, Camille Grove as Emilia, Alexander Perez as Archie, and Troy Vallery as the delivery boy.

When we meet Scrooge, he interrupts the caroling. After a curtain call there is a satisfying bookend to this: Greg Wood, the actor playing Scrooge, leads the cast and audience in a sing-along of “Deck the Halls.” It is a fitting conclusion to a show that emphasizes building a community through music, dance, and live theatre.

A Christmas Carol will play at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre, 91 University Place in Princeton, through December 29. For tickets, show times, and further information call (609) 258-2787 or visit