Every time I see A Christmas Carol, I think about want in this country and around the world. But this year, attending the Denver Center production on the same evening that Republicans had rushed through a so-called tax reform bill that threatens to undo protections for the old, the sick, children and working people, the issue felt painfully pressing. I watched as Sam Gregory’s Scrooge pushed aside a street urchin with outstretched cup, fell to his knees to grab the coins the child had dropped, and berated two men collecting money for charity: “Are there no prisons? ... No workhouses?” Told most people would rather die than go to these places, he added, “If they would rather die, they had better do it and decrease the surplus population.”
Minutes later came a surprise — single blinking lights high up at each side of the auditorium and a shrill, unceasing alarm. A crackly, disembodied voice announced that the show was being interrupted but gave no reason. There was stirring and murmuring in the audience, some laughter, a few whispers. Several people asked nearby ushers what was happening, but none of them knew. I can’t speak to what was going through the minds of the people around me, but I know I flashed momentarily on the carnage in that Aurora movie house five years ago, the sessions at work on what to do if a shooter enters your classroom, the precautions at our children’s schools. What had we been told? I tried to remember. Run? Resist? Where was the nearest exit? Was it possible that the beginning of a season of warmth and joy would cause a dark stirring in the heart of someone angry and demented? Roughly twenty minutes later, the actors reappeared on the stage, and we were again immersed in this opulent and wonderful production: the music, the gorgeous costumes, the clever trick effects and glimmering set in which I glimpsed ghostly shapes from productions past — in particular, a doll and a rocking horse I thought I’d seen as part of the center’s fantastical, twisting version of over two decades ago.
Still, it was hard not to wonder what in hell this country was coming to, and it took a while to settle back into the show. I know I’d have been wrecked for a synthetic, false-cheery Christmas Carol. Fortunately, director Melissa Rain Anderson gives full weight to the shadows in Dickens’s fable, as well as his message about the need for human goodness and generosity in an often grim and frightening world. This doesn’t mean the production is preachy or solemn, or that it lessens the story’s bright magic. Gregory plays Scrooge with playfulness and humor; his terror at the ghostly visitations is hilarious, and you can’t help grinning at his unrestrained joy in his own ultimate conversion. Brian Vaughn even brings some levity to the role of poor, overworked and shivering Bob Cratchit, something I’d have thought impossible.
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I always find the first act of A Christmas Carol more absorbing than the second, especially with the powerful Ghost of Jacob Marley, played with gusto here by Jeffrey Roark. (This is the point where you want to cover the kids’ eyes, even though you know they’re peeking excitedly through your fingers.) The story of Scrooge and his three ghosts is just more interesting than the saga of the poor Cratchits, no matter how well those second-act scenes are played — and they are played well here, with Latoya Cameron as a warmly sympathetic Mrs. C. (Cameron is also a glamorous Ghost of Christmas Past.) Still, all that virtue and pathos feels a bit sentimental and leaden. And some of the merriment at the home of Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, sounds forced.
Even so, as we head into the holiday season, it’s grand to have a production with so much good singing, such perfectly Dickensian Christmas-card images, and all those wonderful children on stage — the Cratchits and street urchins, frail little Tiny Tim (Peyton Goossen), the boy Ebenezer and his sweet sister Fan, and the stalwart lad whom Scrooge tells to pick up a turkey he intends for the Cratchits (“The one as big as me?”). Ultimately, an evening that began in anger and anxiety (I’m still waiting for an explanation of that opening-night alarm) ended in a kind of transformation — and not just Scrooge’s.
A Christmas Carol, presented by the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Company through December 24, the Stage, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, denvercenter.org.