November 23, 2022

New Version of “A Christmas Carol” Respects Tradition, Explores New Themes

GOD BLESS US EVERY ONE: Back at McCarter Theatre after a three-year hiatus, a new production of “A Christmas Carol,” directed and adapted by Lauren Keating, opens December 7.

By Anne Levin

In a large rehearsal room at McCarter Theatre, reminders of past productions of A Christmas Carol are stashed on shelves and piled in corners.

There is the turkey (raw and cooked versions) that Ebenezer Scrooge has delivered to the Cratchit family on Christmas morning. Bob Cratchit’s ledger, with scrawls by numerous actors who have played the role, is there. So are the wrapped presents, baskets of food, Scrooge’s bed, and the sofa from his nephew Fred’s parlor, all awaiting the return of the beloved play based on Charles Dickens’ 1843 novel. After an absence of three years, A Christmas Carol opens at McCarter on Wednesday, December 7 and runs through December 24.

Adapted and directed by Lauren Keating, this version of A Christmas Carol respects much-loved past productions while taking on some new territory. A woman, actor Dee Pelletier, plays Scrooge (as a male character) for the first time. Keating’s additional casting pays particularly close attention to diversity, based on research she has done on London’s population during Dickens’ time. Scrooge’s journey through Christmas past, present, and future is still magical – but with some new emphases.

“We know people are coming for the spectacle, and the spectacle is there,” said Keating, who directed the play in the past at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. “But we want this to be story-driven. I think a trap it can fall into is not coming from a place of story. We’re trying to move people with the story as well as everything else.”

McCarter has been presenting productions of A Christmas Carol (with a three-year break during the pandemic) since 1980. Growing up in Sergeantsville, 39-year-old Keating saw the show every year starting when she was 5 years old. “It was our family tradition,” she said. “I loved it. So to get to come home and make this, through my specific lens, is really exciting.”

The most recent version of the play, directed by Adam Immerwahr, debuted in 2016. Keating didn’t see that production — she has been busy in regional theater and off-Broadway, directing plays, films, and site-specific events, all with a commitment to work centered on marginalized voices.

McCarter Artistic Director Sarah Rasmussen, with whom Keating worked in the past at the Guthrie Theater, had not seen McCarter’s most recent version either. “I never got to see it in person, but I know it was lovely. And of course, we want to carry on the tradition,” she said. “But Adam (Immerwahr) has moved to the West Coast. Time moves on, and key collaborators go on to new adventures.”

When Rasmussen learned that Keating had moved to the local area with her family during the pandemic, things started to fall into place. “I had seen her version at the Guthrie and loved it,” said Rasmussen. “She has done some really thoughtful things. And when she told me she had grown up seeing A Christmas Carol here as a child, and it inspired her to be a director, it made sense.”

Casting a woman in a role written for a man isn’t exactly new at McCarter. In former Artistic Director Emily Mann’s 2003 production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Blair Brown played the lead role of Prospero (as Prospera). Asked about casting a woman as Scrooge, Keating said it was simply a matter of finding the best person for the role.

“It’s not why we’re doing it, but why not?” she said. “We saw a lot of people, and Dee was just the best. I see that this is perhaps unique now, but my hope is that this won’t be unique in the future.”

Rasmussen said, “I think Lauren’s casting of a great actor for a great role is right on. It’s just a character played by a great actor. Dee is just wonderful. I think when we open up our minds a little about casting, you hear things in a new way. And that can be exciting.”

Music and dance figure highly in the show, which has choreography by Emily Maltby. There is a cast of 21, including children mostly from the tri-state area.

“There is something for everyone. This production was made with a lot of love and joy, and if you come and take the ride with us, you will hopefully feel that joy,” said Keating. “If you come as a family, it can be a touch-point throughout the year. That, to me, is a value you don’t get with other theatrical experiences on the whole.”