A Christmas Carol
Few stories borrowed from other cultures resonate with the American people more than Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. But more popular and far reaching than the original source novella have been the tens of movie productions – including English, American, Japanese, musicals, animated, preachy, and silly. Many traditional versions are targeted at adult audiences, but suitable for children. However, when translating the work to the stage, it can be adapted primarily for children and adults as an entry point to theater. Center Repertory’s annual offering is rightly noted as being one of the most compelling productions to grace the Bay Area, and this year’s version is no exception.
The skeleton of the story is so broadly known that spoiler alerts seem unnecessary. Briefly, miserly Ebenezer Scrooge receives visitations from the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. The apparitions warn him of dire consequences if he fails to change his ways. In particular, Tiny Tim, the son of Scrooge’s employee Bob Cratchet will die because Scrooge pays Cratchet too little to afford the needed medical care. Exposed to the looming tragedy and also shown by the Ghosts of the goodwill of others toward him despite his own meanness toward others, Scrooge makes good. He joins the Brotherhood of Humankind; Tiny Tim survives; and all is well with the world.
Redemption is a key aspect and goal of most religions, so a plot line of this sort uplifts, in concert with general beliefs. But the unsettling aspect of this and parallel plots is – What about the balance sheet of good versus evil? What about the pain inflicted on others before redemption? Is absolution warranted? In this case, perhaps we can assume that Scrooge’s damage was limited, and in fact, the biggest consequence of his meanness was his own self-inflicted misery.
Building on years of delivering this version of A Christmas Carol, Director Scott Dennison’s Center Rep production abounds with glorious artistic values. At first blush, the set may be a little off-putting. Kelly James Tighe’s two-tiered, 19th century industrial iron works look seems hardly right for a plot that occurs largely inside, in an office, a bedroom, a dining room. But the use of movable props and John Iarla’s focused lighting to isolate particular areas of the stage for those venues works very well.
The overall look of the staging is stunning. In addition to dramatic lighting, Steve Channon’s striking projections are used on many different surfaces in numerous ways to add an extra visual dimension. Exploded reflective confetti and streamers plus fog add sparkle. And as a period piece with a large cast, Bethany Deal’s costumes fill the stage with form and color.
Acting is inconsistent but mostly fine. Distinguished actor Michael Ray Wisely as Scrooge doesn’t seem cruel enough in the mean moments but makes up for it when he trembles before the ghosts and then elates at his new found humanity. Ghost of Christmas Past, Kerri Shawn, and Ghost of Christmas Present, Jerry Lee, get to ham it up in campy roles, while Teddy Spencer gives a confident rendering in the role of Scrooge’s nephew Fred.
This version of A Christmas Carol would not be classified as a musical, but it does contain a number of Christmas carols delivered mostly by a quartet. Some musical arrangements veer from the popular renditions, which creates a little of the unexpected that works mostly but not all the time. Likewise the performances are generally good.
Finally, the Caywood and James adaptation of the novella is tight. A qualified criticism is the extensive use of narration, provided by Bay Area theater treasure Ken Ruta. Narration is generally eschewed in performing arts as it suggests the inadequacy of performance elements to convey the story. That said, in this case, it is important that children are able to follow, and the narration does clarify points that might otherwise be missed by younger audience members. Also, some characterizations are a bit silly, but will appeal to that younger group.
In the final analysis, it is clear why Center Rep has succeeded with this annual seasonal offering.
A Christmas Carol, adapted by Cynthia Caywood and Richard L. James from the Charles Dickens’ novella of the same name, is produced by Center Repertory Company and plays at the Lesher Center for the Arts, 1600 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek, CA through December 16, 2018.