Top-notch adaptation of Dickens classic returns.

By: Nov. 25, 2023

Is there a better staged version of Charles Dickens’ holiday classic than the annual delight at Ford’s Theatre? 

It would be hard to find one. Michael Wilson’s adaptation of “A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas,” first staged in Houston but run for many years at Hartford Stage (where it has returned this season), has been a mainstay at the historic Fords since 2004. Scrooge and company have been part of Ford’s holiday calendar since 1979, but Wilson’s adaptation amps up the spirit by wisely inserts a dozen holiday tunes. That doesn’t make the version exactly a musical; rather, the songs seem to spontaneously burst out among the snowflakes. 

Over the years, there have been tweaks and improvements such that this year’s production, directed by José Carrasquillo (from Michael Baron's original direction), is a beautiful, well-oiled presentation with a splendid set by Lee Savage featuring twin spiral staircases and an Industrial Age Iron bridge below an all-important clock that signals the approaches of each of the promised spirits. 

Craig Wallace, who has handled the role since 2016, is a commanding Ebenezer Scrooge who brings his own touches to the familiar character — his “Bah, humbug!” for example, emphasizes the initial word of the phrase.

Wallace also brings something more unexpected. With his self-important bluster, defensiveness and pointedly off-putting worldview (Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?) — all operating in the most political theater in the most political town -- his bearing brings to mind uninvited contemporary comparisons (I’m sorry, but once once I got the image of Clarence Thomas in my mind, I couldn’t quite get it  out). 

Still, Wallace’s Scrooge for all of his nasty foreboding, still allows occasional slivers of reconsideration of past misdeeds, such that his utter transformation at the show’s end into giddy holiday cheerleader is not entirely out of left field, or triggered entirely by a fear of death.

It all starts in the bustle of London streets on Christmas Eve, filled with delightful amusements, from marionettes to a steam powered vehicle puffing smoke, to the paneled, solitary bedroom of Scrooge’s home.

The effects in this ghost story are top notch, from a Marley (Stephen F. Schmidt) emerging from a mantel painting, to a pair of flying spirits who never touch the ground. Part of the credit there is due Justine “Icy” Moral, who portrays not only the Ghost of Christmas Past, but the foreboding, unspeaking Ghost of Christmas Future. Give her an MVP Award: she’s also the doll saleswoman in the London streets and the production’s dance captain (choreographer is Shea Sullivan). 

The remaining spirit is a standout as well — Kimberly Gilbert has enough brash personality not only for the Ghost of Christmas Present but as one of the more memorable vendors in debt to Scrooge. 

The production keeps in mind income inequalities that, if anything, are worse now than in the 18th century such that the ominous figures of Want and Ignorance appear, silently, more than once. 

Using a verse or two of a well-loved Carol To set scenes or underscore emotion is a fine way to increase the Yuletide quotient. But there’s also use of non-Christmas songs to add quasi-religious tones of redemption, such as “Dona Nobis Pacem” and a nod to British lyricism that in fact was used in the 1951 Alistair Sims movie version as well, “Barbara Allen.” 

The costume design of Alejo Vietti, lights by Rui Rita, and sound design by Josh Schmidt combine to create a perfect Victorian fable. And let’s not forget the wigs of Charles G. LaPointe (to whom we’ll also credit the fabulous sideburns). 

For a story that’s been remade, redone and endlessly recontextualized each season, there is something solid and succinct, too, about Ford’s approach to the Dickens tale. And while most the timeless lines remain, there are alterations to help the story along, including providing Scrooge a maid. She’s played by Ayanna Hardy, who returns later as the ragpicker Mrs. Dilber. Still, because there are fewer scenes of Scrooge meeting the spirits from his bedchamber, there’s less familiarity with his decor such that her fighting over his bed curtains posthumously loses some of its impact. 

But really, there’s hardly a wrong thing about Ford’s “A Christmas Carol.” It fills viewers with enough cheer to sing along to a carol at the end; and enough charity to gladly pitch in for a cause while exiting (over the years, nearly $1 million has collected). It provides enough good will overall to rekindle an honest seasonal warmth amid the encroaching  commercialization, and provide hope for redemption for the hardest hearts (and maybe Clarence Thomas too). God bless us every one. 

Running time: Two hours, with one 15-minute intermission.

Photo credit: Craig Wallace as Scrooge with some of the young cast in "A Christmas Carol." Photo by Scott Suchman

“A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas” runs through Dec. 31 at Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th St NW. tickets at 888-616-0270 or online at the link below.