Change Can Be Strange
Even for good institutions, change is necessary. The Laird Williamson-Dennis Powers adaptation of A Christmas Carol has been staged by the Denver Center Theatre Company for the past fifteen years, and I've always enjoyed it. But the best shows can grow stale and tired over time, and it's hard to keep audiences coming back for them again and again. So it makes sense that artistic director Kent Thompson should choose a new version of this iconic Christmas classic for his first season. Written by Richard Hellesen with music by David de Berry, this Christmas Carol has its strengths. It's respectful of the novel, using much of Dickens's original dialogue and description to tell the tale of the miserly businessman, Scrooge, and his conversion to kindness by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come.
Also to their credit, Hellesen and de Berry have chosen to retain the dark side of the story and to honor Dickens's social conscience rather than mount a production that's purely sweetness and light. Life in Victorian England was grim for many, and the music and the dialogue reflect this. I'm not sure, but I think an effective speech in which Martha (daughter of the poor clerk Bob Cratchit) describes the long, difficult hours she works at a milliner's has been expanded from a brief sentence in the novel.
The set, by Vicki Smith, is charming -- particularly when she takes us out into the bright streets of London -- and the special effects are far more sophisticated than those in last year's production. Jacob Marley's ghost enters in a flash of flame that frightens the children in the audience. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come -- who was a rather laughable figure in the old version -- is shadowed, mysterious and spooky here. The scene in which the action swirls around a swooning Scrooge as he collapses to the floor is also very effective. And the music is more lush and integral to the action, with cast members periodically bursting into song.
But I have to admit, I liked the old Christmas Carol better. I remember it as more sparse, more elegant, more surprising, more grotesque. It communicated the miseries of poverty just as well as this one. I liked the purity of the songs. I found myself missing the level of imagination that created the magical winter skating scene. And last year's Fezziwigs were not only hilarious, they were adorably lascivious with each other. This year's were just generic jolly folk -- even though Mr. Fezziwig was played, as before, by the inimitable Mark Rubald.
In general, the Hellesen-de Berry Christmas Carol feels heavier and more sentimental than its predecessor. One of the most amazing passages in the book is the one in which Scrooge awakens and realizes that he's alive and Christmas isn't over: "'I don't know what to do,'" cried Scrooge, laughing and crying in the same breath.... "I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy. I am as giddy as a drunken man.'" This patch of speech works so perfectly in and of itself that I can't imagine why Hellesen or director Bruce K. Sevy felt the need to have a red rose drop at Scrooge's feet right before "happy as an angel."
And why costume the Ghost of Christmas Past -- in the novel, a strange, flickering, ambiguous figure combining age and youth, light and shadow -- like some odd combination of golden-haired Vegas showgirl and Glinda the Good Witch? I swear, as Kathleen McCall took the stage and glided purposefully forward, I fully expected her to swing her skirt aside to reveal long chorine legs and burst into song. By the time choreographer Gina Cerimele-Mechley had sent her skipping around the stage waving her arms above her head, I was wishing she had.
The cast's English accents are all over the place, and as for Tiny Tim, the staging makes him so peripheral that he seems almost an afterthought.
John Hutton is very effective as the ghost of Jacob Marley, and David Ivers brings great warmth to the role of Scrooge's nephew, Fred. The scene in which the young Scrooge loses his sweetheart, Belle, always tends to sound stilted and Victorian, but Ruth Eglsaer gives it real feeling. As Scrooge, Philip Pleasants sometimes plays to the kids in the audience, using broad, hammy touches; at other moments, he's genuinely immersed in the role. But his performance never feels quite grounded; there's just not enough focus and subtlety there to hold our interest.
I predict this will be a popular and successful show for the Denver Center, and I don't want to be sentimental about the old version, which certainly had its flaws. But last year I felt a glow of happiness as I left the theater. This year I didn't feel a thing.
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