Monday, November 25, 2019

120 (2019-2020): Review: A CHRISTMAS CAROL (seen November 24, 2019)

“Give and You Shall Receive”

I just discovered a darling clementine in my shoulder bag, still fresh, and not lost and gone forever. I’d forgotten it after receiving it the other day during the moments preceding the latest adaptation of Charles Dickens’s amazingly enduring A Christmas Carol, a novella first published in 1843.

I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s not the most frequently filmed and dramatized work of fiction in history. There are several other versions currently on tap, as traditional, during this holiday season, one example being A Christmas Carol in Harlem.
Andrea Martin, LaChanze, Campbell Scott, Rachel Prather. All photos: Joan Marcus.
The one I saw is an import from London’s Old Vic,  where it premiered in 2017, its script by Jack Thorne (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) and its direction by Matthew Warchus (Matilda). It's at Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre, with Campbell Scott as the flinty old miser, Ebenezer Scrooge, and Andrea Martin and LaChanze playing the Ghost of Christmas Past and the Ghost of Christmas Present, respectively (La Chanze also covers Mrs. Fezziwig).

This joyous version resembles the look of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s great 1980 (Broadway in 1981) adaptation of Dickens’s The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, although it trims the original to two hours, whereas Nicholas Nickleby held its audience enthralled for eight and a half hours over the course of two separate plays.
Andrea Martin, Campbell Scott.
A simple platform stage, designed by Rob Howell (who also did the costumes), and thrillingly lit by Hugh Vanstone, thrusts into the auditorium (necessitating the removal of prime ticket-buying real estate) beneath a starry sky created from dozens of hanging lanterns. Using barely any scenery (mainly four slender door frames that rise from the floor and sink back as needed) and only a highly selective number of props (among them an elaborate coffin), the production scampers briskly through the familiar story.
Campbell Scott.
That, of course, is the one about the greedy old buzzard who considers Christmas a “humbug,” who mistreats his needy clerk, Bob Cratchit (Dashiell Eaves), before being chastised by a visit from the ghost, in chains, of his late business partner, Marley (Chris Hoch). Unrepentant, Scrooge is then visited by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come (here represented by Scrooge’s dead sister, Little Fan [Rachel Prather]).
Sarah Hunt, Campbell Scott.
He revisits the failure of his youthful love for Belle (Sarah Hunt), envisioned by Thorne as the daughter of Fezziwig (Evan Harrington), to whom young Ebenezer was apprenticed. In Dickens, Fezziwig is a successful businessman, but here he’s an undertaker. In the most haunting scene, filled with hooded phantoms, Scrooge also glimpses his own death before he reforms completely, ending with his altruistically providing the family of his wretched clerk with a bounteous feast, topped off by the immortal “God bless us. Everyone,” of Bob’s disabled young boy, Tiny Tim (the adorable Sebastian Ortiz, who has cerebral palsy, at the performance I attended). I defy you not to weep at this classic moment.
Campbell Scott, Dashiell Eaves.
It’s also hard not to weep at the way in which Dickens’s tale of income inequality continues to reverberate today, where—especially as noted by the Ghost of Christmas Present—the distribution of wealth has caused heartbreaking conditions. It’s almost too easy, in fact. to fantasize about parody versions of the narrative featuring names that appear in our daily newsfeeds. Who is the most mean-spiritedly unphilanthropic, or, shall I say, illegally philanthropic, billionaire, you can think of? See what I mean?  
Campbell Scott.
Warchus makes the event as celebratory as possible, beginning with a small band on stage playing lively Christmas music as the cast—dressed authentically in mid-19th-century clothing, the men in black coats and stovepipe hats, the women in wide dresses—walks down the aisles with baskets. As they go, they distribute tangerines and cookies, while actors on stage throw them to outstretched arms in the auditorium. 
In preparation for the feast at the Cratchits’ home, two, long, white sheets are tossed from either side of the balcony to crisscross on the stage, where they serve as chutes for an abundance of fruits and vegetables that soon pile up in baskets. Meanwhile, foods both real (like cabbages) and artificial (like sausage links) are passed along through the spectators’ hands.
Campbell Scott and company.
Now and then, carols are inserted into the performance, and music underscores most of the production. But the loveliest musical moment of all comes as an encore, when Scrooge, addressing us directly, asks if we’d like one more. At the audience’s enthusiastic response, the entire company, singing not a word but each holding one or two handbells, play out, note by note, in Christopher Nightingale’s exquisite arrangement, the beloved “Silent Night,” with the very last tinkle, following those by Scrooge himself, given to Tiny Tim.
Andrea Martin.
Campbell Scott, white-haired and mutton-chopped, plays Scrooge in a long, red garment looking like a cross between a coat and a sweater. He makes a robust, if a bit too perpetually gruff, geezer, a man who brusquely chases off the carolers at his door. The ghosts played by Andrea Martin and LaChanze push prams, looking more schoolmarmish than spectral. Martin, one our most dependably laugh-generating comediennes, isn’t given enough opportunity to do what she does best, which is also true of the chances given to the vocally exhilarating LaChanze, here adopting a West Indian accent.
Campbell Scott, LaChanze.
The supporting company of 13, several playing two roles, is admirable, although their English accents aren’t always pure. Chris Hoch, who plays both Marley and Scrooge’s cruel father, sings splendidly, and Sarah Hunt's Belle, especially when Scrooge revisits her after she's been happily married to another, is touching.
Company of A Christmas Carol.
What else is there? Oh, yes. If you feel wet drops on your head, it’s because snow is falling on you from snowmakers in the balcony. You might, in the holiday spirit, wish to reciprocate when you depart with a drop or two in the buckets waiting in the lobby for use by charitable organizations.

Lyceum Theatre
149 W. 45th St., NYC
Through January 5