I’ve seen many productions of A Christmas Carol over the years, most of them pleasant in a Hallmark card sort of way, none of them memorable. So I’m trying to figure out just what makes this year’s A Christmas Carol, an annual offering at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, such an exhilarating experience.
The story is familiar: We know about the miser whose shriveled heart is forced open and warmed by ghostly Christmas visitations. First comes Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s deceased business partner, clanking the heavy chain forged by his own greed on earth. Then the Ghost of Christmas Past, with a message of bitter nostalgia for Scrooge’s innocent childhood, followed by the jolly Ghost of Christmas Present, who takes him to see two celebrations: the family of Scrooge’s employee, Bob Cratchit, at their meager feast, and the party thrown by Scrooge’s cheerful impecunious nephew, Fred, whose affection the old miser has spurned.
Finally comes the terrifying ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, to reveal the desolate emptiness of Scrooge’s future.
There are many ways of thinking about this apparently simple tale, but the main idea that hit me this year is that this is a story about a man who learns to see, to go beyond his narrow world and feel for the people around him. We live in a time of bitter barrier and division, when many people are unable to look beyond racial boundaries, when it’s assumed that cops and black youths are mortal enemies, and when the rich in their privileged enclaves refuse to acknowledge the plight of hungry children. “You were always a good man of business,” a shaken Scrooge observes to Marley’s Ghost, and the ghost responds, “Mankind was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”
Most Christmas Carols attended by little girls in sparkly dresses go easy on these darker aspects: the suffering of the poor, Scrooge’s own childhood sorrows (at the age of eleven, Dickens himself worked in a boot-blacking factory), and the existential terror of supernatural intervention. But this production, the first that Melissa Rain Anderson has directed at the Denver Center, skates over none of this while still managing to maintain the joyous affirmation of the ending. The ghosts, particularly Marley’s, are frightening as well as funny; the two children representing Ignorance and Want die in front of us, and their rigid forms are carried off. All this adds nuance and meaning. In a recent column in the New York Times, Roger Cohen reminded us of the place of sorrow in life: “The most beautiful times of day are dawn and dusk, when shadows are long, offering contrast, refuge and form. Death is the shadow that gives shape to existence, urgency to love, brilliance to life.”
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This show uses more of Dickens’s own text than most, making the script funnier and smarter, with more signposts toward meaning, more context and even a whimsical little passage about Scrooge’s house being so out of place in its neighborhood “that one could scarcely help fancying it must have run there when it was a young house, playing at hide-and-seek with other houses, and forgotten the way out again.”
The set and lighting are expressive, the special effects skillful. David de Berry’s songs have been rearranged and sound more subtle and melodious. Then there are the costumes, from the beautiful lines of the Ghost of Christmas Past’s white dress, worn with equal beauty by Latoya Cameron, to the top hats and buttoned boots we recognize from a thousand Victorian-themed Christmas cards. You need a Scrooge with intellect, depth and feeling, and Sam Gregory, who takes over the role this year, fills the bill. At the beginning, Scrooge’s remarkable nastiness had me flashing for a moment on Laurence Olivier’s Richard III, with his lank, stringy hair, hunched in his chair plotting the murder of his brother. Scrooge’s repentance is equally convincing, and so is his sheer exultation at finding he’s alive in the wonderful final scenes.
The end of Cohen’s column — “Love more, love better” — provided fitting words for the season. In the context of this fine production, Tiny Tim’s so-often-parodied exhortation feels just as simple, perfect and right: “God bless us, every one.”
A Christmas Carol, presented by the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Company through December 24, Stage Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, denvercenter.org.