Lights out for A Christmas Carol

by Keith Barber

The dusting of artificial snow that fell periodically from the rafters of the High Point Theatre stage during the North Carolina Shakespeare Festival’s production of A Christmas Carol let loose an intermittent flake or two during the climactic scenes of Ebenezer Scrooge’s tale of personal redemption. The solitary flakes glistened under the hot lights and appeared like tiny shooting stars as the company brought its annual stage production of Charles Dickens’ holiday tale to a close on Dec. 21. The real stars of the show — the talented actors and all those working behind the scenes — did a marvelous job remaining true to the original text of Dickens’ masterwork with a slight twist. A Christmas Carol has been adapted countless times on stage, film, television and even in animated specials. The Shakespeare Festival players, under director Pedro Silva’s tutelage, proved that Dickens’ story can be adapted into a very entertaining musical yet not lose the original flavor of its 1843 London setting. David Bishop’s original score sets a high bar for the cast, but the players did not disappoint the packed house on Sunday afternoon. From the opening scene, which utilizes light effects and a drop screen in a manner only seen in the most professional of productions, it is evident the audience will be in for a holiday treat. The entire cast participates in the first musical number, and the heavenly harmonies waft throughout the theater. The choral nature of the musical numbers is appropriate considering the subject matter. Different cast members take turns narrating the story of Jacob Marley’s death some seven years before the play opens. The characters speak in the language of 1840s England, but it is done with such feeling and near-perfect enunciation, there is no need for translation. Gary Dartt’s set design pieces, which pivot, advance and retreat with mechanical precision throughout the production, add an astounding flexibility as the play jumps from interior to exterior and back again. In the opening sequence, the exterior of Scrooge and Marley becomes an interior when a character merely pushes one beam and the set swivels around.

As the play opens, Ebenezer Scrooge, played with great intelligence and humor by Allan Edwards, speaks his diatribe against the Christmas season with an enthusiastic “Bah! Humbug!” Edwards plays Scrooge in a close-tothe-vest manner in the opening act, saving a full-on display of the character’s emotions for later scenes. London fog fills the stage during the scene where Scrooge thinks he sees Jacob Marley’s face on his door knocker. For devotees of the 1984 CBS version of A Christmas Carol starring George C. Scott, it’s hard not to draw comparisons at this point in the production. The TV version created a true sense of horror and dread when Marley’s ghost came back to warn Scrooge of the fate that awaited him. The ghost of Jacob Marley, played by Stephen Ware, is a dreadful figure on the stage. But the dialogue between Marley’s ghost and Scrooge moves at an agonizingly slow pace. This is one instance when strict adherence to the original text does not effectively move the story along. Silva does take a few liberties with Dickens’ prose — in most cases, with excellent results. For example, the Ghost of Christmas Past, played by Cynthia Barrett, is brightly lit in her all-white costume, but does not carry a magical cap that would put out the light of truth. In a slightly different turn, the Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge on a brief history of his life, leaving out some of the scenes in the original story. But Edwards’ ability to emote Scrooge’s pain while watching himself as a young man is equally powerful. Robert Beatty, who plays a number of roles in A Christmas Carol, plays the Ghost of Christmas Present with a joyful glee that lifts the generally somber mood of the piece. Beatty’s booming voice and stage presence is an equal match for Edwards’ talents. Scrooge observes Bob Cratchit’s family and his nephew, Fred, celebrate the holiday with a wistful demeanor. The spirit of Christmas Present does not take a hard line with Scrooge, but sets him straight on a few things. He taunts Scrooge with his own words about the “surplus population” and also makes a timeless point about the commercialism associated with the holiday season. The spirit explains to Scrooge than anyone who attempts to profit from the sacred holiday is estranged from the true meaning of Christmas, and will suffer as a result. Edwards often breaks the fourth wall during the performance and addresses the audience directly. Silva takes this liberty with Dickens’ prose in an apparent attempt to engage the audience, and to elicit compassion for Scrooge. Based on the audiencereaction, the technique works exceedingly well. In the final act, thedozen or so child actors in the play perform a musical number thatsounds like angels singing. Music director Pauline Cobrda doesan excellent job using music as smooth transitions between scenes, andthe choral number performed by the dozen children in the cast in thefinal act sets the tone for Scrooge’s reckoning. Under awhite-hot spotlight, Scrooge comes face to face with his ultimate end,and reaches out to the audience for compassion. Suddenly, he’s returnedto his dusty chambers and soon, the joyous celebration begins. The castserenades the audience with, “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” as TinyTim observes, “God bless us, every one!” All the principals workingbehind the scenes on A Christmas Carol deserve enormous praisefor bringing such a professional production to the High Point Theatrestage. It is a Christmas tradition that should be as timeless asDickens’ universal message that kindness, forbearance, generosity andgratitude are the true ingredients of the Christmas spirit.

Allan Edwards played Ebenezer Scrooge in the North Carolina Shakespeare Festival’s production of A Christmas Carol at the High Point Theatre. The show ended its annual run Dec. 21. (photo courtesy NC Shakespeare Festival)