Thalian Association is getting into the spirit of the season with an adaptation for the stage of Charles Dickens’ classic “A Christmas Carol.” Directed by Mike Thompson, it has a cast of over 60 people on Thalian Hall’s Main Stage.
The show opens with three children (Anna Berger, Grace Clavadetscher and Merlot Bader) asking Charles Dickens (Jim Bader) to tell them the story of “A Christmas Carol.” This sets up the frame of Dickens as the narrator, which becomes a little confusing later when Jacob Marley (Stuart Pike) appears to assume that role.
We meet Ebenezer Scrooge (Lance Howell), who is the quintessential miser. He has big shoes to fill with such notable performances coming before him as Allister Sim, Michael Caine, Mr. Magoo, and Tony Rivenbark, but Howell is really present in the role. His nastiness in early scenes is enough to make my stomach turn, and his desperation during the sprits’ visits is truly present. However, his moments with his sister, Fan (Katya Rizkallah), and his lost fiancé, Belle (Peyton Furtado), shine. He is purely and totally present, striving and struggling for his youth. He renders an emotion that perhaps all of us old geezers in the audience can relate to when looking back upon our lives and mistakes. He epitomizes those emotions.
“A Christmas Carol” begins as a ghost story: Jacob Marley is haunting his former business partner Ebenezer Scrooge and tells him that three more spirits are coming to visit him as well. In this vein, Thompson has taken the expected world of thunderstorms and spirits to a pretty high extent. The thunder completely overwhelms most of the dialogue in the early scenes, and Marley’s appearance is heralded by teenagers in the white with black lights that move much like the spirits from the Patrick Swayze movie “Ghost.” It might work for some audience members, and it did fulfill the intention of getting as many young performers onstage as possible. Unfortunately, their purpose and intent seems a little unclear. (“Why are there disco dancers in ‘A Christmas Carol’?” my date asked.) I find myself so much concerned with the spirits, and one has to strain to understand Jacob Marley. It overwhelms and confuses, which is probably how it’s intended to come across to Scrooge.
Act two brings one of the highlights of the show: Paul Homick as The Ghost of Christmas Present. A small man when playing the fruit vendor, his stilt-walking is a marvel to behold! When he walks down the stairs, gasps form the audience permeate Thalian. (One woman even emitted an audible, “Woah…”!) His funny, giggling accent only cements his memorable performance. Also, the haunting repetitious theme of young Jeffery Michael Cooke singing “Noel” evokes tears. It’s a lovely addition to the entire show.
Actually, some of the more interesting performances come from characters who seem like side components of the story. Bob Cratchit (Josh Bailey), Scrooge’s Clerk, is just a nice guy trying to get by and take care of his family, but his part is much smaller in this production than in others. It’s a shame because Bailey and Mrs. Cratchit (Kaitie Auletti-Smith) are really a joy onstage when they’re surrounded by their little Cratchits: Gabriel Homick, Brooke Samtmann, Kathleen Medlock, Kendall Chase Walker, Gregory Beddingfield, and Skye McIver. Rather than just trying to terrorize Scrooge, more time could be spent watching the real family and realizing their essence—for both Bailey and the audience.
As well, Nephew Fred (Jake Steward) and his wife, Beth Corvino, are really wonderful. I’ve previously seen Steward only in sketch comedy roles in Pineapple-Shaped Lamps’ productions. To see him play a serious role with genuine warmth and concern surprises and is a wonderful casting choice. I also have seen Corvino onstage many times, but usually as a teenager, in a very young-adult role (due primarily to her sweet, doll-faced looks) or in highly comedic situations. She possesses great comedic timing. This is the first time I’ve seen her play a serious adult role, and I hope to see much more of it. Actually, the principals all are very strong, which gets to the heart of the story. “A Christmas Carol” is actually a pretty simple and straightforward idea. It doesn’t need to be overly complicated to make the point. More multimedia presentations and extraneous people onstage don’t necessarily make the story stronger. It’s a message that is going to resonate if Scrooge’s journey is genuine, and Howell’s is.
Debbie Scheu’s Victorian-period costumes for the cast are pretty incredible to behold. Attention to detail epitomizes her work only second to durability. What she produces for a 60-plus person cast is a visual feast. It manages to communicate age, class and familial affiliation all in but a glance. It’s pretty amazing.
Music director Rasa Love directs enchanting a capella singing throughout, which features a live fiddler, Jessi Goei, in the stage-right box for Fezziwig’s party. Terry Collins’ multilevel set is really quite functional for moving between locales and times. Coupled with Dallas LaFon’s lighting, it really accentuates the shadowy wintery world of London at Christmas, and blends it with warm family scenes for the Cratchits and Freds.
Though there are some truly standout performances and wonderful design elements, the show really doesn’t gel overall. The script doesn’t feel like it came together; indeed, it seems to have pieced together several different visions of what “A Christmas Carol” can be. For “A Christmas Carol” purists, like my date, it’s a struggle. Act two is definitely stronger than act one. By the end, it may have audiences leaving the theater to dial their loved ones, just to say, “Thinking of you.”
Thompson has assembled a talented group of actors, which reminds audiences of the message of “A Christmas Carol.” What matters is really between people, and in theatre what is happening between two characters onstage is what is really important. That’s what people come to see.
A Christmas Carol
Thalian Hall, 310 Chestnut St. <Thurs.-Sat., Dec. 18 – 21, 7:30 p.m.; Sun. matinee: 3 p.m.
Tickets: $15 on Thursday; $30 otherwise