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BWW Review: Touring CHRISTMAS CAROL Lights up the Season


Visually stunning show is full of yuletide cheer

BWW Review: Touring CHRISTMAS CAROL Lights up the Season

Some compelling reasons to see a production - any production - of Charles Dickens's A CHRISTMAS CAROL this holiday season before your yule log peters out:

  1. Holiday nostalgia
  2. A new spin on A VERY OLD chestnut
  3. The man (or woman) behind the "Bah, Humbug!"
  4. You've never seen this story before (in which case, welcome!)

Compelling reasons to see the hugely-ballyhooed Old Vic production of A CHRISTMAS CAROL at the Ahmanson Theatre:

  1. Hugh Vanstone's lighting
  2. The snow
  3. Brandley Whitford's sprightly Scrooge
  4. Holiday nostalgia

Actually, "compelling" may be too forceful a word here. A gussied-up CAROL is still a CAROL all the same. On the heels of all those awards it raked in in 2020, the national tour of the Jack Thorne-adapted CAROL arrives to reopen the Ahmanson Theatre while a separate production is also sitting down in San Francisco. Directed by Thomas Caruso from the original production helmed by Matthew Warchus, the L.A. production is delightful if not magical, certainly enough to scratch anybody's holiday itch and maybe a little bit more.

It's still a case of skinflint hates X-mas, skinflint meets ghosts, skinflint reforms. But in Thorne's version, we are given a deeper peek into the past of Ebenezer Scrooge (played almost exclusively by Whitford with an occasional assist from Harry Thornton as his younger incarnation) and see how this future hater of all things yuletide fits in with any number of misused Dickens heroes. Unlike Copperfield and Twist, this Eb wasn't an orphan, but given what a manipulative hard-driving drunk his father had been, he might have been better off. As part of his transformation, a "set things right"-minded Scrooge actually seeks out his jilted childhood sweetheart, Belle (affectingly played by Sarah Hunt) and makes amends.

The Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come are perhaps a skosh less preachy than often played, and they're not rubbing Scrooge's nose in the social blight of 19th century London with any great vigor either. Identically clad in a patchwork dress and pushing baby carriages, Past (Kate Burton) and Present (Alex Newell) are more probing than haunting and Newell's Present takes no guff. Ghost #3, often a silent specter, is here embodied by Scrooge's cherished little sister, Fan (Glory Yepassis-Zembrou).Reproach from this source stings.

Seasonal festivity plays a big role in the rendering of this tale. Yuletide favorites (orchestrated and arranged by Christopher Nightingale with music direction by Remy Kurs), underscore a lot of the interactions whether they are sung or performed by handbell. On opening night, Whitford dedicated the performance closing rendition of "Silent Night" to the memory of Stephen Sondheim (who, coincidentally, the actor was fresh off playing in the film of TICK, TICK...BOOM.) Classy touch.

Classy actor. Stereotypically at least, we often think of Ebenezer Scrooge as a man as ancient as he is hard-hearted, a gent not so far distant from the dreadful fate that the spirits are forecasting. Whitford isn't that. His white hair and beard notwithstanding, this is a Scrooge who bustles from scene to scene, powered by some super-charged motor and can energetically join in a reel with Belle at the Fezziwig Christmas party or any other celebration. Even when playing characters with a healthy dose of arrogance, Whitford remains an eminently likeable actor and the charisma and rapport he shares with performers old and young serves the actor well here.

Not that somberness and gloom should over-infuse any holiday chestnut, but this CAROL jumps the rails a bit once the night of haunting is concluded and Scrooge starts un-Grinching for Christmas Day. With Whitford and the three spirits serving as ringmasters, the company spreads itself throughout the audience and assembles the Christmas through a bunch of references to Ralphs and Trader Joe's. All in good fun if a little bit over-cute. Things get back on track as Whitford shares a tender interaction with Cade Robertson's fearless Tiny Tim (Robertson shares the role with Sebastian Ortiz; both actors have Cerebral Palsy).

A CHRISTMAS CAROL is theatrical comfort food, but the elements of this new rendition that should make audiences feel like they have enjoyed a more nourishing meal are the technical tricks. The lighting, especially. As designed by the British designer Hugh Vanstone, the canopy of lanterns that overhang the Ahmanson are a wonder to behold. Programed to shock, twinkle, punctuate or pulsate like a giant heartbeat, those magical lanterns add a wondrous dimension to this tale. Like the production's scenic and costume designer Rob Howell and sound designer Simon Baker, Vanstone took home a richly-deserved 2020 Tony Award for his work. Small wonder. In this tale about seeing things a new, Vanstone literally and figuratively lights the way.

Photo of Bradley Whitford and Glory Yepassis-Zembrou by Joan Marcus

Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

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