BWW Reviews: Trinity Rep's Heartfelt CHRISTMAS CAROL Embodies Spirit of the Season

BWW Reviews: Trinity Rep's Heartfelt CHRISTMAS CAROL Embodies Spirit of the Season

Trinity Rep once again works its Christmastime magic with an outstanding production of the Company's signature Christmas Carol. Each season, TRC finds new and inventive ways to present Dickens' classic tale on stage, bringing generations of Rhode Islanders back to the theater every year as December approaches. The 2014 Carol, under the direction of recent Brown/Trinity graduate Taibi Magar, is a lovely piece of storytelling with amazing energy, some unexpected touches, and undeniable holiday cheer.

This staging revisits the familiar snowy streets of Scrooge's Victorian London, but with a little twist of Vaudeville added to the mix. The production opens in the present day, as children break into an abandoned theater; their presence sparks the stage into transformation, and when the tattered curtain is snatched down, the shadows of the past come to life in song and story.

Instead of starting off with Marley's death, however, the audience immediately encounters Bob Cratchit, hard at work in Scrooge's office. Magar moves Marley's final moments to a flashback scene further on in the first stave. It's an interesting switch, and one played very well by Fred Sullivan, Jr., who lets the slightest bit of reflection slip through the moneychanger's uncongenial veneer as he recalls the grim anniversary.

Sullivan again inhabits the "Bah! Humbug!" of Ebenezer Scrooge with great relish, and as he did last season, he layers his character with biting snark and sudden bluster. Embodying this miserable attitude earns Sullivan lots of laughs, but his implacable sternness is no light matter. Indeed, this sneering Scrooge is not easily swayed toward repentance; he mimics and mocks his earlier Christmas Eve conversations, even as Jacob Marley's ghost arrives to haunt him. This is a strength of Sullivan's performance, as his initially sarcastic, matter-of-fact approach to Scrooge's otherworldly visitors makes his reclamation all the more powerful in the end.

Against this looming personality stands Stephen Thorne's meek, hardworking Bob Cratchit. Sullivan and Thorne are terrific scene partners, and Cratchit's skittishness around his hard-hearted employer provides both men with wonderful material and physical comedy bits. Thorne has some very playful moments, including Cratchit using every last ounce of his strength to keep "Christmas" from bubbling over on his lips after dangerously letting "Merry" slip when he parts from Scrooge. He also well conveys Cratchit's grief during an especially poignant moment at Tiny Tim's gravesite.

Tom Gleadow is at the top of his game, interpreting many key roles - from Jacob Marley to Mr. Fezziwig to Old Joe - in this year's Carol. Gleadow shows great versatility and range in this. His Fezziwig is as jolly and warmhearted as his Marley is miserly. He is exceptionally good as Marley's tormented shade, making the most of his spine-tingling entrance and taking a stern approach to Scrooge's hardened flippancy; even Gleadow's eyes turn flinty and unyielding as he rattles Marley's chains with menacing conviction.

Elise Hudson is an ethereal Ghost of the Past. Draped in flowing silvery fabrics and bathed in cream tones, she seems to grow to incredible heights as she floats above the stage on a crescent moon. Hudson also stands out in her ensemble roles, delivering even the simplest of gestures with poise and genuineness.

Joe Wilson, Jr. again reprises his role as the Ghost of Christmas Present, and his memorable and athletic entrance is a real treat. Christmas Present certainly exudes exaggerated flamboyance in this production, and his character - with top hat, striped tights, and waxed moustache - sports the most obviously Vaudeville-inspired look on stage; still, Wilson chillingly tones down the over-the-top personality that defines his ghost to deliver an angry, challenging mimicry of Scrooge's own hastily-uttered "Are there no prisons?" refrain.

The Spirit of Christmas Yet-to-Come, portrayed by Ralph Adriel Johnson, enjoys an eerie and unnerving entrance, and the ghost's looming form is quite effective from many angles. However, the character's movement is somewhat problematic as its robes end abruptly at the actor's ankles; this allows Johnson's very human dress shoes to show clearly as the specter moves about on stage, a disconnect visually and proportionally in the spirit's design.

A Christmas Carol is not a musical, but it includes many musical numbers. This year's arrangements feature some truly standout vocalists in the cast, particularly Michael Jennings Mahoney as Scrooge's nephew, Fred, and Andrew Polec as Topper. These two young actors earn well-deserved applause as their characters engage in a friendly note-holding competition, one that Sullivan's Scrooge humorously joins as well. The full company's renditions of traditional carols feel joyful and jolly, an honest performance brimming with real Christmas spirit.

Costumer Olivera Gajic does fine work with the period attire, especially in the neutral tones and muted cranberries used to convey the distance of Scrooge's past. Patrick Lynch's stage pieces effectively suggest surroundings and place while keeping the storytelling tight, streamlined, and free of distraction. Keith Parham's lighting - including the proscenium illumination - sets the tone and mood of each scene, from evoking the cheerful warmth of the family hearth to creating the eerie dimness and weak glare that accompanies the arrival of a ghostly figure.

Throughout the Carol, Trinity's cast and artistic team include wonderful little touches that reinforce the atmosphere and environment of each scene, such as the pervasive cold in the offices of Scrooge and Marley. There, Bob Cratchit's chilled lip sticks to his mug and a mouse freezes to death in the coal stove. Later, Scrooge passes the house band situated on an elevated walkway, and he snipes at them until they cease playing the scene's accompanying background music.

Magar has a clear fingerprint on this particular staging of A Christmas Carol; one of her most memorable additions breaks the fourth wall, but still feels organic to this production and much in keeping with the heart of the story. It is Magar's own tip of the hat to Trinity Rep and a nod to the long tradition of the Company's Christmas Carol performances in Providence.

A Christmas Carol plays Trinity Repertory Company's Chace Theater through December 31, 2014. Tickets are available online at www.trinityrep.com, by phone (401) 351-4242, or by visiting the box office at 201 Washington Street, Providence, RI. Adult ticket prices range from $48-$100 and children's tickets are $25-26 (ages 2-14). Contact the box office for group rate information.

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Photo by Mark Turek

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