BWW Reviews: Actors Theatre's A CHRISTMAS CAROL Still Fresh In Its 38th Year
Actors Theatre's annual rendition of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" is back for its 38th year. In a golden anniversary season celebrating the theatre's past, present and future, there is little dust on this perennial favorite - only lots and lots of snowfall from the grid above the Pamela Brown stage.
For most audience members, "A Christmas Carol" is a family holiday tradition. Even seeing Actors' production with fresh eyes, it's utterly impossible to be unfamiliar with the story of Ebenezer Scrooge. Generations upon generations have been privy to his tale of redemption on stage and screen, embodied by the likes of Alastair Sim, Reginald Owen, George C. Scott, Sir Patrick Stewart, Michael Caine, Jim Carrey and even Bill Murray, in an interpretive kind of way.
So imagine the delight of a first-timer to find out: this is a pretty fresh piece of work! In every aspect of production, director Drew Fracher has injected vibrancy and spirit.
Any appraisal of "A Christmas Carol" must of course being at its core: the miserly curmudgeon, Ebenezer Scrooge. As a 12-time Scrooge, WilLiam McNulty could have settled into cruise control with the role by now. Not so. He imbues Scrooge with something I've never seen: a verve that makes Scrooge not a decrepit chill permeating the festivities, but more of an impish goblin snapping at any hand extending holiday cheer.
The adapted script by Barbara Field and McNulty's performance also give Scrooge something I've rarely encountered with the character: a motivation, a satisfaction, in his miserly "humbuggy" ways. A few simple lines stating what Scrooge likes about his lifestyle goes a long way in refreshing a tale we've heard so many times. It gives the ghosts something to overcome.
And when it comes to combating his waywardness, Fracher pulls out all the stops. This production is by turns holiday concert, broad comedy, and supernatural horror story. Larry Bull's Marley is not merely a pitiful moaning portent, but a bellowing terror so overpowering, one almost forgets his intentions toward Scrooge are magnanimous. You'll be sitting firmly upright, nails digging into your armrest, at his every move.
Perhaps the most self-consciously "artsy" touch of the show comes with the arrival of Lindsey Noel Whiting's Ghost of Christmas Past. She enters and escorts Scrooge via aerial gymnastics, manipulating a pair of super-long scarves. The choice is more spectacle than story-driven, but Fracher makes some inspired choices in how he uses them, forming angel wings, doorways, slings and obstacles. And this takes nothing away from Whiting's work both with the scarves and the character. She will take your breath away.
David Ryan Smith makes a boisterous and endearing return as the Ghost of Christmas Present, a great foil to Scrooge midway through his spiritual thawing. Tyrone Mitchell Henderson turns in a rye and spry performance as the Narrator. Though iconized to the point of blankness as Belle, Scrooge's forsaken love, Maya Lawson is a merry spitfire as Scrooge's none-too-fond-of-him niece. Samuel Taylor seemed a bit small on the largest stage at Actors, but his Bob Cratchit has a great chemistry with McNulty's Scrooge and is one heck of a father.
Every aspect of the world created onstage is flawless and engrossing. Paul Owens' London is wondrous to behold, from the starry skyline to grand overarching walkway to the monolithic turntable set. Each of Lorraine Venberg's costumes is spot-on for the period and social strata portrayed, and Delilah Smyth's movement direction makes you want to join the Victorian dance party onstage. Matt Callahan's audio and Brian J. Lillienthal's lighting design spare no vividness or creativity in taking Scrooge from his darkest night to his brightest dawn.