BWW Review: Charles Dickens' Classic A CHRISTMAS CAROL at the Carrollwood Players
A CHRISTMAS CAROL, Charles Dickens' beloved literary chestnut, has never been out of print since its release in December of 1843. It was a hit right away, with the first edition selling out only five days after it was unleashed in stores. In some ways, Dickens included every Christmas tradition that he could in his original novella, so within its pages we can find holiday songs, family gatherings, dancing games, a delicious Christmas goose, and seasonal tithing. With its ghosts, it seems to teeter on the darker side of things, more suitable for Halloween, combining the macabre with the merriment (as Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas would beautifully explore almost 175 years later).
A CHRISTMAS CAROL, which revolves around literature's most famous miser, Ebenezer Scrooge, is a story of redemption during hard times when it was tough to believe in anything other than misery. These were dark days in London, during the early years of the Victorian Era, and Dickens was yearning to spotlight the nostalgic goodness of the season in order to infuse some sort of joy that he feared was absent in a world that had grown far too jaded. And if a cold-blooded, heartless skinflint like Scrooge can be transformed, then isn't there hope for all of us?
Those who know me understand that I am a sucker when it comes to any tale with redemption as its central theme, even in a work as renowned and unsubtle as this holiday icon, so I was eager to see A CHRISTMAS CAROL at the Carrollwood Players. This version was adapted and directed by David W. Collins, who played Scrooge at this same venue last year, and part of it is interestingly narrated by the ghost of Jacob Marley (Scrooge's business partner, who died on Christmas Eve seven years earlier). The production turns out to be all over the place, a no-frills affair that is often flawed, but who cares? This is A CHRISTMAS CAROL, a holiday staple and a feel-good heaping helping of eggnog; once you get past the production's shortcomings, the story sweeps you up and you get caught up in the spirit and sweetness inherent in the classic.
Leading the way is Bill Martin as Scrooge, who cantankerously snarls and "bah humbugs" his way through the show, chewing the scenery and enjoying it every step of the way. He looks like the strange pairing of Robert Morley and John Quincy Adams, and he's quite fun to watch, even when a line or two of his was stumbled over on the night I saw it.
As the ghost of Jacob Marley, Brian McCreight has his moments as well, and in his dead man make-up, he looks like Gary Oldman as the aged title vampire in the 1992 film, Bram Stoker's Dracula. He's a worthy narrator, and though his first appearance to Scrooge has a nice jolt with at least some special effects, the audience yearned for much more of the supernatural flashing lights and technical wizardry that would have catapulted this production to the next level.
Trish Farber is wonderful as Ms. Dilber, Scrooge's housekeeper; you wish everyone in the cast matched her marvelous energy. Kenneth C. Grace, as the Ghost of Christmas Present, is another standout. He's so robust and full of good cheer, always eating, drinking and being merry, that he also zaps the show to life whenever he's onstage.
I adore the entire Cratchit clan. John Austin captures the humble goodness of the father, Bob Cratchit; his breakdown after the death of one of his children is most moving. Piper Grace, Vanessa Hinson and Laura Lopez-Forero are a hoot as the Cratchit girls, some of them in-fighting, giving each other a little sisterly push when they can. Leeann Davis Smith and Jude Smith, as Mrs. Cratchit and Peter Cratchit, are quite good as well, and it's a perfect touch that they are played by an actual mother and son.
The standout Cratchit is young Jack Coffey as the doomed but optimistic Tiny Tim. This young actor has so much amazing potential; watch as he reacts, when it's not his line and yet he's always in character, always in the moment. We feel his struggle as he hobbles with a single crutch, taking his time. Mr. Coffey is quite young, but if theatre is something that he is drawn to, that he enjoys with all of his heart, then he has the talent and naturalness on stage to pursue his dreams in this field. I hope to see him in future plays.
Casey Sampson is delightful in a myriad of parts. Charles Davidson, Chris McDermott, Layla and Carly Kuck, Kaedin Cammareri, and especially Alex Andrews (as Scrooge's nephew) also do fine work.
The cast gives it their all, but some of them, newbies and veterans alike, had difficulty with some of the lines on the night I attended. Also, every part is important in a play, even a walk-on character with no lines, and every actor needs to always be in character onstage, even when he or she does not speak. There's even an instance where the adult actors look to another actor who has a line...before the actor says the line. The accents were also all over the place, but not in a purposeful way (some attempts at British, but with only a couple of them succeeding).
The show started off way too slowly, with some unnecessarily long stretches of silence, but really picked up as it went along; Act 2 was much stronger than Act 1 (it also packed a more emotional punch).
David W. Collins' direction is fine, and we really get a sense that this is a labor of love.
The costumes work well and mostly put us in the time period (with the exception of Belle's dress). The set is something else. It's too barren, with inappropriate lighting and colors for the Victorian Era. It looks like a middle school cafetorium play at times, but without the charm. In future productions of this Christmas classic, I would love to see a full set, and not just set pieces brought on by actors and a painted graveyard at the end, but something for the audience to admire, something that could send us back to a world long gone, something that separates this CHRISTMAS CAROL from all of the others out there.
Even if this play is a yearly fixture, more care needs to be put into the technical aspects of this show (mainly the set), the same care that the other Carrollwood plays usually have. Yes, the story will resonate with whatever set, or lack of a set, but the cast and the show deserve more.
I love that Mr. Collin uses only music from 1843 or before (with nice fiddle work by David Snider and choreography by Alana James). I would like to have had even more of this music used throughout. There are some anachronisms, the most obvious being when the children are playing with Teddy Bears. Teddy Bears are a Twentieth Century phenomenon, made popular after President "Teddy" Roosevelt set free a bear during a hunting trip in 1902, which led to a popular political cartoon of TR and a bear cub by Clifford Berryman, which led to a toymaker's idea and ultimately the most popular stuffed animal of the past 120 years.
Flaws aside, this CHRISTMAS CAROL'S story of redemption comes through, and I was quite moved to the point of tears. It immediately put me in the Christmas spirit. By the end, I wanted to run on that stage and share some Christmas joy (and goose!) with Scrooge and the Cratchit clan. It's a celebration of the best of mankind. The play runs until December 22nd, so I recommend you get your Christmas fix as well at the Carrollwood Players. Only a real-life Scrooge will refuse to fall under the story's joyous spell.