BWW Review: A CHRISTMAS CAROL Get a Fresh Coat of Paint at Theatre Calgary
Theatre Calgary has been delighting audiences with A Christmas Carol for 30 years, changing up the adaption, cast, and production every few years to keep audiences coming back for more. This year, director Stafford Arima has taken Geoffrey Simon Brown's adaptation and presented Calgary with a brand new Christmas Carol. With music direction by Allison Lynch, and choreography by Jesse Robb, this was truly a Calgarian collaboration of theatre.
The story is always the same. Charles Dickens' classic Christmas tale of Ebenezer Scrooge, visited by spirts of the past, present, and future who show him the power of kindness and generosity, and remind the audience that it is never too late to change. Told through song, dance, spectacle, and genuine heart, there is a reason this story has endured.
Geoffrey's new adaption didn't stray too far from the original text; instead, presenting the concepts of helping the poor and homeless, and showing kindness to all in a new light. I felt that the themes of the show, rather than being sprinkled as part of the journey of the character Scrooge, were instead at the forefront of the scene and the characters took more or less a backseat. That is not to say that the characters were any less developed or emotionally driven, but I think we as an audience were told the moral rather than left to discover it on our own. There was much less discussion and guess work involved.
Accompanying the new script was a new set and video design by Scott Reid. Again, the set didn't completely alter the Victorian settings but this year, there was much more emphasis on new technical elements like projection, wires, and automated set movers. The use of more animatronics and technical design rather than traditional manpower was neither good nor bad but I do prefer a more physical approach to stage effects. The blend between stage and screen was actually quite well done. There were a few scenes - Scrooge's office comes to mind - where the proportions of the projection made the stage feel so big and empty despite wanting to give a feeling of a lack of space. However, seeing the sets move on their own, and the projections of flying through London, helped to sell that magical and supernatural element of the story.
Michael Walton's lighting design was an interesting balance of matching and contrasting elements. Other than the use of strobe, sharp reds, and blinding whites, which were dizzying to say the least, I loved the warm tones of the past and the cool tone of the present. Overall, I saw the attention to detail in the technical storytelling.
The costumes by Deitra Kalyn were beautifully designed. I saw the thought that went into the colour schemes and the Victorian fit, which made the two human spirits stand out for their outlandish characteristics. I was fascinated by the Ghost of Christmas Present and the grand presence made with the sheer height and bright colours. A fabulous embodiment. I admit, when the Ghost of Christmas Past first entered, I thought she looked a little like a jellyfish, but the fairie or sprite-ness of the costume worked as a great contrast to the golden browns of the past scenes.
Of all the changes made to this story, the one constant was Ebenezer Scrooge. Stephen Hair has been playing Scrooge for 26 years, and his understanding of who this man is, along with his ability to adapt with every new iteration and grow with each new cast, is a testament to his incredible talent. There are some traditions that are meant to last and Stephen Hair as Ebenezer Scrooge is one of them.
A new addition was the introduction of the Fiddler, played by Allison Lynch, who narrated to the audience and stepped inside the world to observe Scrooge's journey through music. The role of the Fiddler was fascinating to me, acting as another spirit to watch over Scrooge as he grows and changes. Lynch had this wonderful ethereal quality as she narrated and moved in and out of reality. The calmness that she embodied was perfect.
Though it is a brief by essential scene in the story, I found Jacob Marley's warning to Scrooge underwhelming but I can't exactly pinpoint what it was. I got the impression that Brian Jensen, in his white makeup and chains, wanted to move around more but couldn't, given the constraints of the costume/set design. I struggled to hear him at times, though I know microphones were available to the spirits to enhance their voices as they performed supernatural feats such as moving and flying with loud chains attached.
Playing the spikey, sprite, and the embodiment of Christmas Past was Jamie Tognazzini. She brought a wonderful playfulness to the character and though some of the wire work distracted us and her, she never let it derail the fairy-like quality of her movement, a contrast to the somewhat restricted movement of Christmas Present. Portrayed by Marshal Vielle Natay'ao'tako, Present's costume was extravagant - as it should be - but it took away a lot of his movement opportunity and left him with his face and most of his arms as his only form of physical expression. He made a joyful and boisterous spirit that the audience greatly enjoyed.
The last of the three spirits is traditionally a character whose face is never seen and doesn't have to be played by any particular actor. I was quite disappointed in this interpretation of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. In an attempt to create a looming, and larger than life figure, I thought it looked uncontrolled and unreadable. I wouldn't have known what the puppetted creature was doing unless Scrooge had narrated for us. The use of the fabric was quite creative but the character itself was my least favourite by far.
This cast was filled with some of Calgary's finest, some from previous productions taking on new roles, some taking them on for the first time, and others coming back after a few years away. Graham Percy's portrayal of the struggling by kindhearted Bob Cratchit was exactly what I expected. Percy is an actor who has the look of a man in high spirits no matter what he's doing, a wonderful fit for the poor man who finds hope and joy despite the sorrows. It made the real sadness in his life hit that much harder to see that smile fall away. Fierce and incredibly loving, Anna Cummer played his wife Alice Cratchit with a natural maternal affection towards the children - and you fully believed she would tear Scrooge a new one for the love of her family.
The other couple who act as an example of the concept of "poor of money but rich of spirit" were the beloved Fezziwigs, played this year by Mark Bellamy and Karen Johnson-Diamond. The new text gave more weight to the character of Fezziwig with speeches on hard economic times and found families, and Bellamy rose to the challenge with an infectious energy that brought the whole audience along for the journey. Of course, Johnson-Diamond embodied the kind soul of Mrs. Fezziwig seamlessly. The warmth she brought to this character perfectly matched her partner's.
Filling out the Cratchit family tree were Cash Davis, Ava Hornung, Marina Kadri, Jackson MacNeil, Hannah Wu, and young Oliver Woodruff as Tiny Tim. The show also featured Evan Andersen Sterns as the Boy Scrooge and the caroler Thomas, and Julianne Smith as Fan.
Rounding out the cast were Brett Dahl, as Fred, Christopher Duthie as Dick Wilkins, Emma Houghton as Belle, Vanessa Jetté Naya as Mrs. Dilber, Devin MacKinnon as Young Scrooge, Declan O'Reilly as Ensemble (and Scrooge Understudy), and Genevieve Pare as Emily.
This story is an old one and every year, a new concept, a new actor, or a new script come along to frame A Christmas Carol in a unique way. What I saw from Geoffrey Simon Brown's new adaptation was a desire to put these Victorian struggles in a contemporary light. The technological advancements are a testament to the innovations theatre companies are making every year. While my heart will always lie with practical effects, I think the new design worked to enhance the magic of the world.
I love Calgary's mix of new shows every year and traditions that can bring families together. Theatre Calgary's production of A Christmas Carol is a long-standing tradition and this newest production only shows the small changes that can keep it alive in the ever-evolving theatre community. I look forward to seeing what changes are made next year.
A Christmas Carol will be playing at the Max Bell Theatre until December 28th 2019. Tickets can be purchased at www.theatrecalgary.com.