“A Christmas Carol” Returns to Fill McCarter Audiences with Holiday Spirit; New Production Remembers Past Versions While Bringing a Fresh Viewpoint
“A CHRISTMAS CAROL”: Performances are underway for “A Christmas Carol.” Adapted and directed by Lauren Keating, the new production runs through December 24 at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre. Above, from left, the Cratchits — Tiny Tim (Yoyo Huang), Margaret (Gisela Chípe), Belinda (Zuriaya Holliman-York), Peter (Desmond Elyseev), and Bob (Kenneth DeAbrew) — celebrate, as Scrooge (Dee Pelletier) watches. (Photo by Matt Pilsner)
By Donald H. Sanborn III
McCarter has resumed its annual tradition of presenting A Christmas Carol — with a new production adapted and directed by Lauren Keating. This version retains some conceptual and design elements that succeeded in past productions, while bringing a fresh viewpoint.
As Town Topics previously noted, “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.”
It is worth mentioning that a female actor has played Scrooge in other recent productions. Sally Nystuen Vahle played the role for Dallas Theatre Center, and in 2021 Adrienne Sweeney starred in a production by Minnesota’s Commonweal Theatre. However, Pelletier is the first female actor to fill the role for McCarter.
Although Scrooge is still depicted as male in Keating’s version (the young adult version of the character is portrayed, with suitably intense brusqueness, by male actor Matt Monaco), a few other characters have been “re-gendered.”
The crooked Old Joe, to whom Scrooge’s housekeeper Mrs. Dilber (Polly Lee) sells his belongings (Keating develops this sequence, establishing a rapport between the characters much earlier in the story than Dickens does) is refashioned as the more kindly, wholesome Old Jo (Vilma Silva). The solicitors for charity, who usually are depicted as male, here are named Cate (Julie Ann Earls) and Mary (Legna Cedillo).
Both David Thompson’s adaptation (which McCarter had been presenting up until 2019) and Keating’s involve the plot device of a snow globe that is attached to a music box. Early in the play, Young Scrooge (Addie Seiler) holds the globe.
As the tune (“The Holly and the Ivy”) plays, Young Scrooge is surrounded by falling snow — and the community. Composer and Sound Designer Palmer Hefferan underscores the sequence with joyous, ethereal music, which gradually becomes grim and foreboding.
Dickens’ basic story is largely unchanged. Scrooge gruffly rebuffs an invitation from Fred (his nephew, played by Monaco in an interesting dual role) and his wife Caroline (Rhea Yadav) to share Christmas dinner with them; begrudgingly gives his clerk Bob Cratchit (an endearingly exuberant Kenneth De Abrew) the day off for Christmas (but denies the same to Mrs. Dilber); and rebuffs the solicitors.
Costume Designer Linda Cho returns from recent productions, as does Scenic Designer Daniel Ostling. Cho’s costumes evoke Dickensian London, while juxtaposing the
somber brown and blue outfit worn by Scrooge against the festive red and green that punctuates the clothes for the characters who immediately embrace the celebratory mood of Christmas.
Ostling’s scenery develops the themes of openness and seclusion. Scrooge’s counting house — a set within a set — is surrounded by outdoor London, which is filled with cheerfully bustling activity.
When Scrooge arrives home, he frightens off a child (Brooke Naznitsky) who — in a deft story motif — sings the same hymn that is played by the snow globe. After this, Scrooge’s front door rises from the stage, inescapably shaped like a tombstone; spiritually, he already has buried himself. Later, after a visit from one of the Spirits, Scrooge’s walls oppressively close in on him — a sharp contrast to the glittery snow that gently surrounds his younger self.
Paul M. Kilsdonk’s lighting is particularly lovely when the Ghost of Christmas Past arrives through a window, contradicting the previous grim darkness of Scrooge’s bedroom. Also, the lighting enhances one of the play’s most stunning visual effects: the disappearance of the ghost of Jacob Marley (Grayson DeJesus, who draws an apt vocal demarcation between the ruthless, driven businessman and the higher-pitched spectral iteration of the character).
Earls portrays the Ghost of Christmas Past as vibrant, bordering on impish and feisty — but tempered with grace. Keating lets this spirit’s segment emphasize the theme of choosing influences.
We see Scrooge follow the examples set by his unkind father (a suitably gruff Alex Brightwell) and Marley. He steadily rejects the influence of his sister Fan (Alesiandra Nikezi), who gives him the snow globe; Mr. Fezziwig (Stephen Conrad Moore) and his wife (Polly Lee); and most crucially, his fiancée, Belle (Cedillo, who refreshingly infuses the role with spunkiness that often is absent).
One of Keating’s most poignant bits of staging comes at the end of this segment. Scrooge is shown Belle’s eventual family — the chance he missed. For a brief moment, Belle and Scrooge glance at each other.
After some amusing slapstick in which the Ghost of Christmas Present (Esther Chen) has to drag Scrooge off of his bed, we see the meager but fully celebratory dinner shared by the Cratchits: Bob, Margaret (Gisela Chípe), Belinda (Zuriaya Holliman-York), Martha (Charlotte Ward Taylor), Peter (played by Desmond Elyseev in the December 9 performance), and Tiny Tim (Yoyo Huang).
In 2019 I wrote, “For most of the scenes involving the Ghost of Christmas Present, 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.” In this new production, that holds firm. Whereas the subsequent spirit’s vision is nightmarish, much of this segment appears idealized.
That abruptly changes when the glittery backdrop gives way to a dark stage, and a vastly aged Spirit warningly introduces Scrooge to two eerie children, Ignorance (Zendaya Holliman) and Want (Elyseev). Scrooge then is faced with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (portrayed by Moore, who also plays Fezziwig, in another striking dual role).
If there is a segment that could use a bit more movement, it is this one. Yet to Come seems — at least to this writer — to spend too much time standing in one place. That Spirit’s spookiness is heightened when it can appear unexpectedly all over the stage.
Elsewhere, though, there is tremendous movement and energy. Fezziwig’s party is a particular highlight, because of Emily Maltby’s sprightly, festive choreography. Also, as noted above, in the early (and final) scenes there is abundant movement around Scrooge, giving 1843 London a lived-in feel that it sometimes has lacked in other theatrical productions.
As Scrooge, Dee Pelletier uses body language — in particular, defensive folding of arms (notably echoed by Monaco during flashbacks) — in contrast to the effusively outstretched arms of the many revelers. This underlines the extent to which Scrooge attempts to keep the world at bay.
Pelletier also is careful to keep her voice curt when Scrooge expresses early regret at some of his behavior, ensuring that the character’s evolution is stepwise, with room to develop. (Keating deftly highlights juxtapositions between Scrooge’s memories of how he was treated, and how he treats those around him.)
Because the three-year absence of McCarter’s A Christmas Carol was necessitated by the pandemic, it is difficult not to notice that Scrooge spends the early part of the story refusing the very thing — physical human interaction — that we were forced to minimize. Recent events also give the snow globe, an object whose function is to allow its user to escape their surroundings and enjoy the magic of Christmas at any time, heightened resonance.
The hiatus makes it all the more uplifting to see, once again, a multigenerational audience filling the Matthews Theatre to enjoy a story that celebrates the passing of holiday spirit from one generation to another as Keating, a new storyteller, continues McCarter’s tradition of telling a beloved tale.
“A Christmas Carol” will play at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre, 91 University Place in Princeton, through December 24. For tickets, show times, and further information call (609) 258-2787 or visit mccarter.org.