BWW Review: A CHRISTMAS CAROL: Recited by the Author
A Christmas Carol
Adapted from the Charles Dickens novella by Tony Brown, Directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian; Music Director & Sound Designer, Nathan Leigh; Scenic Designer, Randall Parsons; Costume Designer, Miranda Kau Giurleo; Lighting Designer, Devorah Kengmana; Assistant Sound Designer, Grace Oberhofer; Dialect Coach, Erika Bailey; Production Stage Manager, Nicole Kutcher
Performances through December 24 at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 E. Merrimack Street, Lowell, MA; Box Office 978-654-4678 or www.mrt.org
'Tis the season, when every theater company worth its salt pores through the canon of Christmas-themed plays and musicals to find just the right property to dangle in front of their audiences. There are some who produce the same selection every year, to maintain a tradition and please their subscribers. There are some who eschew holiday themes altogether, taking an alternative route in order to stand apart from the norm. Pity the veteran critics who have seen them all dozens of times and have to dig out the thesaurus to find fresh verbiage to punch up their reviews. Often, the members of the Fourth Estate pick and choose some representative offerings, declining to try to cover them all, and hoping for the best.
My selection from among the many worthy choices this year is the Merrimack Repertory Theatre production of Tony Brown's adaptation of A Christmas Carol. The conceit of this inventive version is that author Charles Dickens is performing his own work in front of an audience, with musical accompaniment by two musicians, one of whom also portrays the spirits who visit Ebenezer Scrooge. Given that Dickens is played by Joel Colodner, a consummate actor with a rich, resonant voice, it is no surprise that the experience feels like sitting at the feet of a wonderful storyteller who paints a virtual portrait of Victorian London.
Dickens strolls downstage to engage with the audience to introduce his reading, and begins the tale at a small podium. He soon shifts from narrator to actor, playing Scrooge and the various characters he encounters, with an alteration of his voice and body language to differentiate each of them in some way. There's his joyful young nephew Fred, the timid and deferential clerk Bob Cratchit, and the portly solicitor hoping to elicit a donation for the needy. Augmented by the sounds of clanging chains and eerie organ music, Colodner vividly brings the ghost of Marley "to life" as he tries to explain the error of his ways.
Once Scrooge embarks on his late night journeys, Rebecca White steps away from her musician role to portray the three ghosts and the young women from his youth. With a shift in posture and manner of speaking, White easily conveys Scrooge's younger sister Fan and former fiancée Belle, as well as the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and yet to come. Colodner shows his feminine side when portraying Mrs. Cratchit, and displays Scrooge's deep feeling of concern over the fate of Tiny Tim. He is visibly shaken when the silent spirit of the future shows him his own grave, and is totally convincing when he awakens as a new man on Christmas morning, filled with gratitude, brimming with joy, and setting out to spread holiday cheer.
Directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian, this staging of A Christmas Carol is inspired by Dickens' own passion for interacting with his audiences. The author had originally aspired to be an actor, so it was natural for him to speak his dialogue aloud as he wrote his novels. Colodner gives us the sense that he is the author performing his story, not an actor playing the roles. The addition of period music enhances and enriches the overall experience, and White (guitar, trumpet, vocals) and music director/sound designer Nathan Leigh (mandolin, guitar, organ, vocals) are fully involved in helping to tell the story. Leigh's sound design and lighting designer Devorah Kengmana provide evocative atmosphere, and Randall Parsons' set and Miranda Kau Giurleo's costumes complete the picture.
Dickens published A Christmas Carol in December, 1843, and it was a success from the start. There have been numerous adaptations, movies, plays, and musicals, and the public never seems to tire of its timeless story of redemption and goodwill. One doesn't have to think too hard to figure out its importance and relevance in 2017 America. The lessons that Scrooge learns bear repeating. I'd like to see those ghosts haunt the halls of Congress. In the meantime, God bless us, every one.
Photo credit: Meghan Moore (Rebecca White, Joel Colodner)