BWW Review: A CHRISTMAS CAROL Sings Out at Open Stage
Of all the classic Christmas entertainments, no ne other than singing "What Child is This" or "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming" may be older than Charles Dickens' A CHRISTMAS CAROL, since most of our "traditional" Christmas entertainment ideas are Victorian English at their root. Dickens' takes on the England of the period are awash with historically accurate class issues, social strife, and workplace and workhouse abuses, and so the dark spots of Dickens' tales, including this Christmas one, are honestly true of the period.
There have been many adaptations of A CHRISTMAS CAROL staged for readings, plays, even opera, and films; unlike some shows, there's not one canonized "official" version other than the original story itself. As long as the basic plot threads are there, and the most important quotes are heard, the world is content. Stuart Landon's adaptation currently at Open Stage of Harrisburg, which he's also directed, is a perfectly satisfying seasonal confection, containing evil, a traumatizing journey, reform, and redemption, in a way that can make you realize that Ebenezer Scrooge actually fits within Joseph Campbell's mythological framework of the hero's journey.
Landon's Scrooge is the classic Dickensian miser of little charity and a heart that may be more than two sizes too small. "Are there no workhouses?" The Scrooge who utters that is the representation of all the adults who sent Dickens' own family to the workhouse, but the one that emerges asking if the giant turkey is still in the butcher's window is one whose heart has grown more than three sizes overnight during the course of his visitation by four highly educational spirits. If there's a tinge of a contemporary-feeling political discourse in the story as presented by Landon, it's in Dickens' original story as well, proving that, unfortunately, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
The star of the show is, naturally, Scrooge, played, in keeping with the area's own Christmas tradition, by Nick Hughes. What can be said about Hughes' Scrooge that hasn't already been said? He's got the character down cold; his understanding at this point of Scrooge's middle-of-the-night journey of redemption is solid, and he displays it admirably, showing his own knowledge, congruent with Dickens', that the greatest bully is often the biggest coward - another reflection of political and psychological sentiment that hasn't changed much since Dickens' day. It's a joy to watch Hughes' Scrooge take his own misery out on others, from his employee Bob Cratchit to his nephew Fred, to the people he sees in the street.
David Richwine's Bob Cratchit is the quintessential browbeaten employee, treated like dirt but thanking his employer for every mistreatment, because he knows how much worse things really could be. You can feel the relief Richwine exudes when Scrooge finally agrees to let Cratchit have a day off at Christmas, and the lack of irony in toasting Scrooge at a Christmas meal. Patrick Hughes is a delightful nephew Fred, rock solid with good humor and not quite convinced that his mean, miserly uncle might not just come around to humanity someday. This Hughes also plays Scrooge's former employer, Fezziwig, and Dawn-Michelle Lewis plays Mrs.Fezziwig, with a humor that's, whether intentionally or not, deliciously redolent of a pair of non-verminous Thenardiers.
And then there are the spirits of Christmas. Erin Shellenberger's Christmas Past is a cheery, giggly girl who interacts with her presumably imaginary surroundings; she's able to dance with the children of Scrooge's past and eat Fezziwig's food as if it's all perfectly natural, while all Scrooge can do is observe. Karen Ruch's Christmas Present is a big, bawdy, merry wench of a woman, or of a spirit, exhorting Scrooge to learn to drink from the cup of life, which in her hands appears to be a substantial mug of Guinness. Ian Wallace's Christmas Future is as grim as you'd like, a solemnly frightening figure well able to make Nick Hughes' Scrooge cower in fear.
And then there are the phantoms - not of the past, or of the future, but of the world around us. Landon choreographs them ably, using them to depict additional scenes and ideas, to float among people on stage invisibly to the characters, and not only to move props but to generate atmosphere and to remind everyone that even in the midst of physical life the unseen world interacts with us on a very basic level. The phantoms are one of the neatest touches in the show, a reminder that we can never really see everything that is happening around us.
At Open Stage through December 23, and a visual and musical treat (be prepared to hear some Victorian caroling throughout the story) as well as an intellectually stimulating version of the traditional story. Visit openstagehbg.com for tickets and information.