Happy Holidays to all from Dickens’s "A Christmas Carol"

Culture Watch
tags: theater reviews, A Christmas Carol

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

Billy Finn and Graeme Malcolm

The folks at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, N.J., have been trying to get Charles Dickens’s lovable mid-nineteenth century story A Christmas Carol perfect for a long time and this year, after 40 years of trying, they did. Their production, that opened Friday, is spot on wonderful, a warm, tender and joyful Christmas and holiday present for all, the best colorfully wrapped package Santa could bring to anyone.

I have seen the McCarter’s A Christmas Carol numerous times over a 35 year period and it has always been very, very good. Now it is perfect.

It is hard to put your finger on the magic of the story of that cheap old skinflint, Ebenezer Scrooge, the un-merriest person who ever lived, the man who hated Christmas, and the lovable people in his life. Is it the charm of the Christmas season, little Tiny Tim, slowly limping about on his wooden crutch, the oversized ghosts of Christmas past, present and the future? Scrooge’s family, loving him in spite of himself? Or is it all of those reasons?

Scrooge is a truly miserable person in Dicken’s story, adapted for the stage by David Thompson, which has entertained people all over the world since 1844 and served as the source of hundreds of plays, movies, cartoons and television special productions. He ignores his good-hearted nephew Fred’s friendship, scoffs at people trying to raise money for the poor, is infernally puzzled by employers who let their workers, like his own clerk Bob Cratchit, have Christmas day off. Cratchit wants time to celebrate the holiday and while all the world thinks of cheer, love and friendship, Scrooge thinks of nothing but money, money and money.

You all know what happens next. Ghosts take him into the past, the present and the future and let him see the world through new eyes. He is transformed. He changes because, invisible, he sees how the world spins outside of his office. Particularly appealing is the scene at the house of Cratchit, whose family offers a toast to Scrooge and forgives him his draconian work habits and rough treatment of the hard working clerk. This is where the audience gets to know Tiny Tim a bit, and love him. It is where you see that everlasting, heart tugging sight of Cratchit carrying Tim about on his shoulders because the sickly little boy cannot walk. There is Fezziwig’s bold and festive annual Christmas party, attended by Scrooge as a young man in love with a woman who leaves him because of his lust for money.

All of this richly textured story takes place on a majestic set created by Ming Cho Lee. The play opens with a single, forlorn Christmas tree in a London square. Then we have a set for Scrooge’s office, Fezziwig’s party, the Cratchit dining room, strolling carolers, side streets and the lairs of the over-sized ghosts of Christmas who whisk Scrooge through time.

This McCarter production is its best ever. Director Michael Unger, who has been at the helm for nearly twenty hears, worked with set designer Ming Cho Lee and director of production David York to create a magical world of special effects. Scrooge flies through the skies of London and is audaciously tossed down through a trap door in the stage to conclude act one. Ghosts sprinkle magical dust through the air, fires erupt, enormous ghosts wander about the town, dancers cavort at Fezziwig’s mirthful holiday party, choirs sing and hats magically fly through the air, again and again.

Audiences learn much history about England in the show. As an example, Dickens, as always, hammers home his social and moral lessons. There is a scene in which children, in a large group, are herded across the stage and another in which people sing of prisons and houses of work to remind the audience how thoroughly miserable life was for most kids in London in that era (for several months when he was twelve years old, Dickens had to labor in a work house himself to help his family pay bills). The bad employer/employee relationships, upheld by the British courts, are a big target in the play.

Director Unger received heart-warming and just splendid performances from many in the play. Best of all was from Graeme Malcolm, now in his sixth year playing Scrooge. Each year the tall, thin Malcolm gets better and better as the crotchety old miser, who in the end finds Christmas after all. Other superb performances are by Allen E. Read as Cratchit, James Ludwig as nephew Fred, Anne O’Sullivan as a maid, Mrs. Dilber, Billy Finn as Jacob Marley, young Hinsdale as Tiny Tim, Andrew Davis as Scrooge as a boy, Bradley Mott as Fezziwig, Dave Kenner as Scrooge as a young man, January LaVoy as Mrs. Cratchit, and Madeline Fox and Nike Kadri as the ghosts. There is a quite large ensemble of very likeable children.

The audience was holding the applause in for two hours and could not wait for the end of the play to roar its approval. That came when Scrooge knelt down next to the adorable Tiny Tim (played by the adorable Jonas Hinsdale) and gave him a cute little music box for Christmas. People stood and cheered. The ovation shook the building. Then Scrooge and Tiny Tim walked off stage as a snowfall began. Perfect.

PRODUCTION: The drama is produced by the McCarter Theater. Scenic Design: Ming Cho Lee, Costumes: Jess Goldstein, Lighting: Stephen Strawbridge. Musical Director: Charles Sundquist, production director David York, Choreography by Bob Ashford. The play is directed by Michael Unger. It runs through December 27.

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