BWW Reviews: Portland Playhouse's A CHRISTMAS CAROL Will Enrapture Even the Scroogiest Among You
Sometimes, with a familiar property, you just need a new perspective. I was grouching (or Grinching) recently on this site about how tired I was of seeing variations on Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, and I was not all that thrilled to be attending yet another version of same. I should have known better, and by the time Ebenezer saw the light, I was thrilled to be there.
Portland Playhouse just doesn't do anything halfway. When you walk into the theatre, you're greeted by ticket takers, ushers, and assorted others all in Dickensian costume, all sporting English accents; a young urchin who looked to be about eight tried to sell me a raffle ticket in a voice that came right out of Oliver Twist. Before the play begins - and I highly recommend you come early - the cast fills the stage, singing Christmas carols, playing the piano, dancing, harmonizing, and laughing. Scenic designer Owen Walz has designed the space to look like a big living room circa 1843, and the actors use it as such, entertaining themselves, each other, and us as if at a party. They interact with the audience freely, in character at all times, and the Playhouse began to feel like a big family reunion.
This version of the tale, adapted by Rick Lombardo (who also gets credit for lyrics and original music, though I only heard one new song, a lovely solo for Tiny Tim), speeds through the story in 90 minutes, using a great deal more of Dickens's prose than usual. Director Cristi Miles uses her cast of seventeen brilliantly, starting the play by gathering the entire cast on stage, having them light candles, pass along the usual preshow reminders, and sing a Christmas carol. Then suddenly we're into the tale, Scrooge's writing desk appears as if by magic, and off we go. Traditional carols are heard throughout the piece, and Miles and music director Justin Jude Carroll have found talented actors who not only all sing well, but several provide accompaniment on piano, guitar, drums of various types, and even a tambourine. The vocal arrangements are stunningly good, and the cast even manages to provide a background score for some of the play's darker moments.
This isn't a laugh-a-minute telling of the story. The emphasis here is on the ghost-story aspect of Dickens; Scrooge is genuinely frightened by Marley and the other ghosts, and he's so steeped in his miserly ways that it takes a good scare to get him to change. I can't remember the last time I felt genuinely invested in any version of this story, but I was at the edge of my seat throughout.
The cast (with two exceptions) is not identified with any particular role, so I'm not able to name the actors who pleased me most. Yet all of them did difficult work, handling narration, jumping in and out of roles at a moment's notice, and scrambling all over the playing area. The actors who played (among their other assignments) Bob Cratchit and Scrooge's nephew Fred were particularly impressive. but what struck me most was that every actor in the company - including the children - appeared not only to be fully engaged but to be having fun. I've seen enough productions where the actors were technically skilled but still seemed to be walking through their roles, but here I detected only great pleasure coming from everyone.
I have to praise Jennifer Rowe for her adroit handling of all four ghosts - including Marley - in a powerful way, differentiating among them with great skill. She was assisted, as were all the actors, by costume designer Ashton Hull, who not only made everyone look period-appropriate, but designed the costumes to make the actors' changes as simple and quick as possible. (I would have suggested costuming the stage managers as well; watching them walk on stage in their standard blacks didn't quite fit with the period atmosphere. But this is a tiny quibble.)
Finally, I've got to give great praise to Drew Harper as Scrooge. Watching him before the show, singing and laughing with his fellow actors, I thought he would be too young and cheerful to be an effective Ebenezer. But as soon as he put on Scrooge's cloak and glasses, his posture deteriorated, his voice became pinched, and he seemed to age twenty years. The character's transformation was gradual and believable, and Harper's youth made him one of the more effervescent Scrooges at the end of the play; I thought he was going to leap to the ceiling as he celebrated Christmas. I wanted to leap right up there with him.
Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and a wonderful New Year to all. And the best present you can give yourself or anyone around you is a ticket to this production.