Its yearly appearance might be anticipated, dreaded or even lampooned, but Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol remains the quintessential holiday story about the transformative powers of love, forgiveness and redemption. Director Laird Williamson has an unabashed (and, among local practitioners, unparalleled) devotion to pageantry, mystery and grandeur; when these qualities are combined with several fine portrayals, the Denver Center Theatre Company's visually captivating show makes for an entertaining evening. And even though Williamson's industrial-gothic approach sometimes evokes more somber feelings of self-reproach than a typical golden-glow version suffused with jolly-good sentiment, the DCTC's production nonetheless conveys a remarkably poignant--and thoroughly Dickensian--message concerning the well-being of the world's children. (Credit Williamson and Dennis Powers with the adaptation of Dickens's novel).
The bulk of the play is performed against a three-dimensional, monochromatic gray set adorned with stacks of ledger books, children's toys and clock faces--some of which light up and move at key points throughout the production--and a subtly luminescent, silvery stage floor that alternately serves as a skating pond, various London public squares and a few fog-filled netherworlds (the set was designed by Robert Blackman). As the play unfolds, familiar characters such as Bob Cratchit (Anthony Powell), Jacob Marley (John Hutton) and Mrs. Fezziwig (Kathleen M. Brady) people the hauntingly functional environment along with scores of beautifully costumed, mellifluous carolers and even a pair of child actors who represent Ignorance and Want.
While the show's many group scenes are a delight to behold, director Williamson's staging is at its poetic best during the episodes that frame the arrival of the play's many apparitions. For instance, shortly after legendary tightwad Ebenezer Scrooge (Richard Risso) berates his harried employee Cratchit, the miserly old man makes his way through what seems like a multitude of people, all of whom quickly assemble into a formation that represents the fence and outside walls of Scrooge's house. As Scrooge attempts to unlock the front door, which is cleverly represented by the point at which two rows of performers intersect, all of the actors suddenly drop their jaws and exhale. Then the ghost of Scrooge's deceased business partner, Marley, appears as if summoned by the collective plaintive sighing of walls that have weathered their share of bitter late-night rants. In subsequent scenes that document the young Scrooge's hardscrabble upbringing, Williamson creates diversions of light and sound that effectively camouflage the entrances of phantasmagorical characters who exist purely in Scrooge's imagination.
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Located conspicuously at the epicenter of Williamson's tastefully orchestrated activity is veteran Shakespearean actor Risso, whose intriguing portrait of Scrooge is a model of aching regret and ebullient repentance. From the play's first foreboding episode, in which Scrooge menacingly growls, "Good af--ter--noon," to its final exultant scene of churchbell-pealing reconciliation, Risso exudes the insufferable codger's strangely attractive indomitability. Determined to forge his own success regardless of the consequences to himself or others, Risso's Scrooge isn't so much a pathological, evil monster as he is a hardheaded tenacious plodder who, we learn from the play's many flashback scenes, is always just a decision away from changing the scope and meaning of his entire life. It's an innovative, surprisingly lighthearted rendering that makes Scrooge an ordinary, flawed character with easily identifiable problems instead of an abhorrent social outcast whose path toward salvation requires a grand operatic metamorphosis.
A solid supporting cast does splendid justice to a cavalcade of Dickensian characters, such as the nimble Ghost of Christmas Past and his wife (Robert Westenberg and Mercedes Perez), the heroic Ghost of Christmas Present (William Denis) and Scrooge's upbeat nephew, Fred (Mark Rubald). Among the many performers who are assigned multiple duties, the versatile Carol Halstead should earn some kind of prize for portraying the greatest number of characters (at four, she's tied with at least a couple of other actors) with the widest possible array of believable attributes.
A Christmas Carol, through December 26 at the Stage Theatre, 14th and Curtis in the Plex, 303-893-4100.