Theater review: inventive, heartbreaking ‘Carol’
Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol
Adapted by Neil Bartlett
Through Dec. 29
Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey
36 Madison Ave., Madison
Featuring Montclair’s Clark Scott Carmichael as Bob Cratchit
Captioned performance: Thursday, Dec. 12, 8 p.m.
Audio-described performance: Thursday, Dec. 19, 8 p.m.
Post-show symposium performances: Saturday, Dec. 14, 2 p.m.; Saturday, Dec. 21, 2 p.m.
Know the Show: Thursday, Dec. 12, 7 p.m.; curtain at 8 p.m.
By GWEN OREL
Another Christmas Carol.
A holiday must. Ho hum.
NO! NO NO NO NO NO!
Got kids? A parent? A spouse? A lonely feeling? A heartbeat?
You must see “A Christmas Carol” at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. No matter how many times, versions, films, cartoons you’ve seen before, you have to see this one.
It’s an outstanding way to kick off the holiday season: theatrical, musical, funny, scary, profound. It has been brilliantly directed by Brian B. Crowe.
Children spotted at the opening on Saturday literally were on the edge of their seats. When the Ghost of Christmas Future came out, a tall death figure likely on stilts, there were gasps. Overheard: “How do they do that?”
Also spotted at the opening: audience weeping, when Scrooge tries to stop his younger self from letting Belle from breaking up with him.
Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella is about Ebenezer Scrooge, a miser who is visited on Christmas Eve by four ghosts. He reclaims the spirit of Christmas after revisiting his past, looking at the present, and visiting a terrible possible future. Englishman Neil Bartlett’s adaptation polishes, streamlines and reinvents the holiday classic.
A cast of 10 plays all the roles, with smart doubling. The same actor (Garrett Lawson), for example, plays all of the handsome young men: young Ebenezer, Ebenezer’s nephew Fred, and Cratchit’s son Peter.
The cast create “word scenery” to go with Dick Block’s clever, minimal set. “Mournful, dirty, mold,” intone the company, about Scrooge’s house.
Scrooge joins in: “Fire, small,” he says. “Gruel, thin.”
Bob Cratchit (Montclair’s Clark Scott Carmichael), head clerk, and the two clerks that work with him, speak aloud “tick tick tick” as they watch the clock.
Actors gather to sing the chimes of a clock, as if they are individual bells.
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Steven L. Beckel’s sound design — the whooshing wind heard when the office door opens, cuts off when it closes — also sets the scene.
You know you’re in good hands right as the show opens: a beggar girl says “Christmas is coming. Christmas is coming,” holding out a cup. Other cast walk on and speak the rest of the nursery rhyme, as if it is real dialogue: “The goose is getting fat.” “Please to put a penny in the old man’s hat.” “If you haven’t got a penny, a ha’penny will do.” “If you haven’t got a ha’penny, then God bless you.”
After speaking it awhile, the spoken lines become the actual carol as they sing.
Robert Long, music director, injects gorgeous music into this “Christmas Carol.” A strain of “In the Bleak Midwinter” as Scrooge visits his boyhood sets a bittersweet, poignant tone.
At Fezziwig’s party, the company sing “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” but instead of “Five gold rings” they sing “Eb-en-ezer Scrooge.” Young Ebenezer was even popular. Then everyone dances merrily to an Irish reel, while present-day Scrooge, whom they cannot see, dances too.
All of the company are accomplished, effective and versatile.
But it is Ames Adamson’s Scrooge, who owns the show. His surly, lovable Scrooge touches the soul. Like Uncle Nicky on TV’s “This Is Us,” he shows us a man terrified of letting down his hardness-of-heart down, lest he melt. We can see this even as he tells “jokes” about workhouses, declaring that if the poor would rather die than go there, they should do so, and decrease the surplus population.
It’s awful, but just the teensiest bit funny.
So when Scrooge’s nephew Fred (Lawson, honorable and dignified) calls him a “comical fellow,” it finally makes sense, and does not seem like Fred is mocking his uncle.
And oh, how Adamson can pull the heartstrings. On the day after Christmas, he plays a little joke on Cratchit, letting Cratchit assume he will be fired and instead he raises his salary. Then he wishes Bob a solemn, choked-up “Merry Christmas.”
Adamson is also a vigorous, younger Scrooge (which makes sense; he’s supposed to be Fred’s uncle, not his grand-uncle), who makes us believe in his ability to change himself, and the world, for good.
Carmichael shines as Cratchit, giddily eager for his day off. In the vision shown by the Ghost of Christmas Future, his breakdown over the death of Tiny Tim is hard to take.
But you won’t cry every moment in “A Christmas Carol.” No, sometimes you’ll gasp: at the door-knocker turning into the green, ghostly face of dead Jacob Marley. Or at the surprising sudden appearance, from the bedclothes, of the Ghost of Christmas Past. It’s not clear whether credit goes to costume designer Summer Lee Jack, lighting designer Andrew Hungerford, or to Block’s scene design but bravo for the spooky effects.
Crowe’s direction precisely conducts the choral sound effects and scenes.
And he highlights the story’s takeaway: the Spirit of Christmas, the spirit of compassion and kindness, should be in people’s hearts all year round.
This “Christmas Carol” is not just the story of one lonely miser.
It’s the story of everyone.