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BWW Review: Jack Thorne Rewrites The Dickens Out Of A CHRISTMAS CAROL


Marley is still dead to begin with, and near the end we're still reminded of Tiny Tim's observation, "God bless us, everyone!" But in between... Let's just say I never thought I'd have to fact-check the plot before reviewing a production of A Christmas Carol.

A Christmas Carol
Campbell Scott
(Photo: Joan Marcus)

There's nary a mention of Charles Dickens in the text nor in the program credits as director Matthew Warchus' Old Vic production of Jack Thorne's adaptation of one of the English language's most beloved pieces of literature crosses over to Broadway. Perhaps the ghost of the great author got wind of the wholesale changes being made to his story of how the miserly and unfeeling Ebenezer Scrooge learns better regard for his fellow humans and asked for his name to be removed.

Not that Thorne hasn't done a nice enough job. His brand new scenes and situations are well written and make some interesting observations. And he's kept the basic structure that during the late hours of Christmas Eve, Scrooge (energetically grumpy Campbell Scott in an enjoyable performance) is told by the ghost of his deceased partner Jacob Marley (traditionally haunting Chris Hoch) that he'll be receiving visits from three spirits who reveal to him shadows of Christmas past, present and future. There's even a humbug or two. Well... exactly two.

But if you find yourself wondering what happened to the door knocker that changes into Marley's face, the merriment of Fezziwig's ball, the stern warning that accompanies the appearances of Ignorance and Want, the silliness of the confused lad who is sent to buy an enormous turkey and other chestnuts from the novelist's source material, well, they'll be roasting on other open fires.

Though Dickens never mentioned Scrooge's profession, Thorne specifies him as a moneylender, allowing for some commentary on credit plans that lure in the desperate and then lead them further into poverty with overwhelming interest rates. As the narrative opens, the point of contention between he and his clerk, Bob Cratchit (Dashiell Eaves), is not the boss' refusal to supply sufficient coal to keep his employee from freezing, but that he's keeping the poor fellow working extra late on Christmas Eve while his children wait for him at home.

Andrea Martin's expertise in gentle humor is put to good use as the Ghost of Christmas Past. Thorne invents an abusive, alcoholic father (Hoch) who removes young Ebenezer (Dan Pierling) from school to make him work as an apprentice to Fezziwig (Evan Harrington), who, in this version, is a kindly funeral director. He's also a bit of a socialist; serving poor customers for free and making up for it by charging the wealthier ones more.

"Those with can afford to support those without," explains Belle (Sarah Hunt), who Thorne has reassigned to now be Fezziwig's daughter. While she and Ebenezer remain attracted to one another, the circumstances behind their breakup have been drastically changed.

LaChanze is a hearty presence as the Ghost of Christmas Present, but she admonishes Scrooge for his ignorance of the suffering of those around him, the most significant example being the health of Crachit's young son, Tiny Tim. A scene that suggests the boy may have died this Christmas Day strongly hints as a cry for affordable universal health care.

A Christmas Carol
Campbell Scott and LaChanze
(Photo: Joan Marcus)

As with Dickens, this Tim is presented as an optimistic, independent fellow despite his condition. Jai Ram Srinivasan and Sebastian Ortiz, both of whom have cerebral palsy, alternate in the role. At the performance I attended, Srinivasan was impressively gutsy in a scene invented by Thorne where Tim welcomes the repentant Scrooge to his home, not as a charity-bearing savior, but as an equal.

The play's second act pretty much abandons Dickens altogether, recasting someone from Scrooge's past as the Ghost of Christmas Future, imagining those who the miser abused remembering him fondly at his funeral and having the transformed Scrooge attempt to reconcile with Belle before organizing a citywide harvest of food that involves prop goodies being passed along through the audience. (The noted theatre critic sitting in front of me was bopped on the head by a fake chain of sausage links dropped from the balcony.)

The morning after Christmas scene is dumped in favor of a "What have I learned?" recap between Scrooge and the ghosts.

While much of the text may be new, the production leans on the traditional side, and attractively so. As audience members enter, music director Michael Gacetta's accordion and string ensemble play holiday favorites while cast members roam about the house offering guests clementines or packaged cookies.

Designer Rob Howell's costumes are nicely Victorian, but his set is rather sparse, save for the dozens of hanging lanterns. Designer Simon Baker gets a workout providing the sound as characters walk in and out of frames representing doors and he and lighting designer Hugh Vanstone make sure we remember that this is indeed a ghost story.

The company narrates much of the story and takes breaks to sing a carol or two. But perhaps the most enchanting moments are when the full company plays Christmas classics on individual handbells.

It even upstages the traditional in-house snowfall.

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