A CHRISTMAS CAROL Brings Holiday Spirit to Contemporary Theater Company
At its most fundamental, theater is a group of people coming together to tell a story in front of an audience. In its earliest days, that's all it was, basic and pure, without any need for today's technological bells and whistles (not that there's anything wrong with those). Contemporary Theater Company's production of A Christmas Carol similarly keeps it simple, bringing a group of players to the stage to let them work together to tell the audience a timeless yet still magical story.
That story, as most will know, revolves around Ebenezer Scrooge, a miserly old businessman in 1800's London who also happens to hate Christmas. Calling it a "Bah Humbug," Scrooge has lost any semblance of any holiday spirit he may have once had, preferring to ignore it altogether, believing it to be a waste of time and money and something that has done no good for himself or anyone else. One Christmas Eve, he is visited by the ghost of his former business partner, Marley, who warns him that he has one last chance to save himself from a fate worse than death, and to help him get there, Scrooge will be visited by three ghosts, the spirits of Christmas past, present, and future.
Contemporary's adaptation, from the novel by Charles Dickens, is by Matthew Fraza, who tightens things up quite a bit, keeping the running time right around 90 minutes. All of the important beats and beloved moments are there, though, and Fraza hasn't excised anything the audience is really going to miss. He's also added in a nice touch here and there to freshen things up a bit, like an interesting moment between Marley's ghost and the Ghost of Christmas Future which works surprisingly well. Also added to this adaptation is a group of carolers, a sort of Dickensian Greek chorus, who narrate the story from time to time. It's a nice way to fill in some of the gaps and add some texture to the story here and there, while also injecting a little youthful energy into the production, as the carolers/chorus are mostly among the youngest cast members.
While keeping things simple, director Maggie Cady does a lot with just a little, in terms of the set, a single raised platform with a ramp at one end. There's also not much in the way of props or furniture pieces, but Cady does an excellent job of creating the wide variety of scenes and settings, allowing the audience to fill in the blanks and use their imaginations to complete the scene when necessary. Along with the tight script, her direction also keeps things moving right along at a good clip, never letting the energy or the pace lag too much. At the same time, there are some moments where things do slow down enough to let the emotional resonance land, such as the scene at the Cratchit house during the "future" section. If there's one poor choice to be pointed out, it's having piano music played throughout the show, not just during the sung carols (and being played by a piano situated in the middle of the audience). The incessant underscoring played during quiet scenes is intrusive, distracting and overwhelming, often making it difficult or impossible to hear what the actors are saying, especially for anyone sitting near the piano.
That's unfortunate partly because there are some excellent moments featuring fine work from the cast Cady has assembled. Winfield Swanson brings an unexpected level of emotion and pathos to Marley's ghost, making it an especially riveting scene and making Marley even more of a sympathetic character. When Marley returns at the end to provide some narration, Swanson puts his fantastically deep voice to good use, as he does when called upon to sing.
Another standout is Valerie Tarantino as the Ghost of Christmas Present. She has fantastic stage presence and a tremendous amount of charisma, bringing a fiery power to the Ghost's interactions with Scrooge. As Scrooge himself, Terry Simpson is also excellent, simmering with a bitterness and resentment in the early scenes that ebbs away over the course of his evening's travels with the spirits. As the two people closest to Scrooge, in proximity, at least, Sami Avigdor brings an understated and believable emotional resonance to Bob Cratchit and Ezra Jordan gives Fred an infectious joy and a mischievous twinkle in his eye. The capable ensemble is rounded out by Susie Chakmakian, Ashley Macamaux, Tina Moore, Robert Soloman, and two rotating youth casts.
All of those performers are clearly having fun as they bring this classic holiday tale to life. It's beloved for a reason and Contemporary demonstrates again how and why it's still undeniably magical after all this time.
A Christmas Carol is presented by Contemporary Theater Company, 327 Main Street, Wakefield, Rhode Island, and runs through December 22. Show times are Thurs (12th) at 7pm, Friday (13th and 20th) at 7pm, Saturday ( 14th and 21st) at 7pm, and Sunday (15th and 22nd) at 2pm. Tickets may be purchased at the company's website, www.contemporarytheatercompany.com, by visiting the box office, or by calling the box office at (401) 218-0282. Ticket prices range from $15 to $25.
Pictured: Cast from Contemporary Theater Company's 2018 production of A Christmas Carol. Photo by Seth Jacobson Photography.