Review: A CHRISTMAS CAROL at A Noise Within

Innovative and imaginative, this beloved production of A Christmas Carol runs through December 24

By: Dec. 06, 2023
Review: A CHRISTMAS CAROL at A Noise Within

A Christmas Carol is the annual, beloved production of the classic Dickens story at A Noise Within in Pasadena, running through December 24. For many theatregoers in Los Angeles, A Noise Within’s Christmas Carol is a beloved and essential holiday tradition.  Directed by Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and Geoff Elliott and starring Geoff Elliott, the play is fresh and glorious to behold, with bold, impressive stagecraft and truly innovative and imaginative costume design.  There are frequent moments of awe and breathtaking sprinkles of magic.  Dynamic and quick-moving, with lighting-fast, rather unbelievably fluid scene changes, A Christmas Carol can entertain and hold the attention of every age range, even the very young (children must be five years old and up). Although it feels off to me in some of its performance and art direction choices, this is a remarkable and stunningly visual production.

Review: A CHRISTMAS CAROL at A Noise Within
The ensemble of A Christmas Carol at A Noise Within

Dickens’ novella is often credited with popularizing Christmas in its current form, and it has been popular in play form since 1844, which means that soon this beloved classic will have been delighting audiences for almost two hundred years. While it has been adapted and performed more than any of Dickens’ other work, A Christmas Carol brought him surprisingly little money, partly due to rampant plagiarism and partly because he was so particular about its expensive and beautiful binding when it was published. Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in just several weeks, in something of a fever dream, spurred on by the enormous financial pressure he was under in 1843.  Later, Dickens did find a way to capitalize on the success of A Christmas Carol with public readings, and some historians claim he originated the author reading tour as a literary happening.  Not everyone was a fan.  Mark Twain saw Dickens read A Christmas Carol on his American tour and said “There is no heart. No feeling—it is nothing but glittering frostwork.”

The time that Charles Dickens spent working in a sweatshop as a child, when his father, mother, and younger siblings were thrown into debtor’s prison, inspired him to become a lifelong social crusader against, among other things, poverty, social class and child abuse.  Remarkably, it was not his work as a journalist but his work as a fictional writer that inspired real-life reforms.  “Are there no prisons?” demands the fabulously rich Ebenezer Scrooge, when asked to give to a charity that helps those struggling with poverty, and “Are there no workhouses?”  This was all too common refrain at the time in Victorian England, and perhaps not an uncommon refrain even now.  A Christmas Carol caused a change of heart in many readers and public figures and shaped social policy.

Review: A CHRISTMAS CAROL at A Noise Within
Jeremy Rabb, Geoff Elliott

A Noise Within is a purist’s dream of an adaptation by Geoff Elliott, and he conscientiously avoids adding any additional language beyond Dickens’ own.  This works, for the most, quite beautifully.  This production hits some snags with some uneven performances and uneven casting.  It feels like most of Julia Rodriguez-Elliott’s and Geoff Elliott’s time as directors is occupied with his fabulous performance as Scrooge and the stunning visuals and stagecraft, at the expense of nurturing actors who truly connect, on a deep level, with this material.  Sometimes A Noise Within falls in to the trap, a pernicious temptation for playhouses that do classic material, where the actors are simply reciting, in a somewhat grand and polished and embalmed way, arcane dialogue without seeming to know or feel what they are saying.  While A Christmas Carol has a good cast with some very accomplished and talented actors, I wish I could see the actors spontaneously and joyfully inhabit the characters and breathe more life into them.  There is a stiffness and disconnect here that distracts me from the wizardry and beauty of the stagecraft, and the glorious, plummy Victorian richness of the language.

Among other things, what brought so much charm to the deeply delightful 5-Star Theatricals production of Oliver! I reviewed in October was some very creative performances from actors breathing freshness, vitality, spontaneity, quirk, and a hugeness of individuality and spirit into their parts.  In the naked pathos, sentimentality, and didacticism of Dickens, you need actors who can work hugely and boldly, creating laugh out loud humor, crystalized moments, and larger-than-life personalities and passions. For the most part, performances in A Noise Within’s production of A Christmas Carol seem like they are trying so hard to be correct that they forget to be memorable.

Director, adaptor and lead actor Geoff Elliott stands out as Scrooge, lovably crusty and endearingly eccentric even in his most hideous miserly incarnation, and truly transportive and giddy and effervescent as his changed self at the end.  Elliott manages to bring a lot of depth to this well-worn part, and his genuine and total heartbreak when losing his fiancee is devastating.  It is a trapeze balancing act, to keep up the arcane language and dignity and elegance of this part, while investing it with layered emotional reality, and Geoff Elliott manages to do both superbly.  He conjures a lovely spirit of whimsy and playfulness that feels like a tonic.

Review: A CHRISTMAS CAROL at A Noise Within
Geoff Elliott, Trisha Miller

The narrator Frederick Stuart is also a huge gift to the play, with glorious, rich diction and a staggeringly great voice that opens up the honeyed sugar plumb world of 19th century language to us.  Stuart brings impeccable timing and great humor and emotion to his narration.  Jeremy Rabb shines as Scrooge’s cursed business partner Marley.  I was also blown away by the sheer loveliness of the Ghost of Christmas Past, floating down from the ceiling in heavenly, featherlight, snowflake-y white tulle.  Actress Trisha Miller brings so much grace and charm and transportive magic to this production, and she is absolutely essential to it.

A Noise Within feels the need to, visually at least, update the Christmas Carol more than I would, with some visuals and costumes that have a steampunk-ish, Burning Man flair.  There are times the ambitious staging and postmodern, bold design of the show feels to me more like it should be a Bertolt Brecht shocker rather than a holly and mistletoe bit of Dickens nostalgia.  Why, I wonder, are we trying so hard to be transgressive and au courant, in a 19th century heartwarming tale about the transformative magic of generosity?  Is it because we just cannot do beloved classics in Los Angeles without feeling the need to spin or update them?  For me the projections added nothing and while I know projections are trendy, I would have left them out.  Trendiness in theatre is a disease and I hate to see it spreading.

Review: A CHRISTMAS CAROL at A Noise Within
Anthony Adu

And yet A Noise Within’s production of A Christmas Carol is quite extraordinary to look at, dynamic and boldly envisioned and executed, with props design by Stephen Taylor, original scenic concept by by Jeanine A. Ringer, and lighting by Ken Booth.  There are visual moments that feel utterly transportive, breathtaking moments, eliciting actual gasps and spontaneous applause from the audience.  The costumes by Angela Balogh Calin can be inventive and sublime.  The Ghost of Christmas Present is a fantastical, operatic, awe-inspiring tower of fruits, leaves, flowers, and shocking lime green tulle.  The sinister, mummy-wrapped black stilt-walker of The Ghost of Christmas Future is a revelation. And while I am not sure I understand the reasoning behind this art direction, Scrooge’s funeral scene is one of the most visually striking scenes I’ve seen on stage.

I enjoyed the grand, big-spirited, engaging musical numbers that started emerging near the end of the play with a truly lovely original score by Robert Oriol and superb music direction by Rod Bagheri.  I would have loved to see more of these musical numbers from the beginning.  The ragpicker’s scene was surprisingly engaging and delightful, while never losing sight of its morbid and creepy darkness, which makes me think that A Noise Within’s upcoming production of Sweeney Todd will be rather spectacular.

On the night I attended, A Christmas Carol had a packed sold-out house of adoring fans, many of whom are returning for the umpteenth year in a row, and it is not hard to see why.  While there are elements of the performances and art direction that feel misguided to me, there is no shortage of brilliant imagination, invigorating boldness, and sheer holiday magic at work here at A Noise Within.  Particularly charming are the photo opportunities afterward with the cast in character, which are an absolute highlight of the Christmas season.

Photo by Craig Schwartz

A Christmas Carol runs at A Noise Within through December 24th.  A Noise Within is located at 3352 E Foothill Blvd., Pasadena, CA 91107. You can get tickets by calling 626-356-3100 or by clicking the button below: