As McCarter Theatre’s A Christmas Carol opens, the streets of London are bustling. Snow is falling lightly, and good will is in the air. A group of carolers gathers around a brightly decorated Christmas tree to sing. But then the festive mood is shattered: the tree suddenly tumbles to the ground, knocked over from behind by a scowling old man dressed in black and wielding a walking stick like a sword. You see, when Ebenezer Scrooge is in town, not only is Christmas cheer in short supply, but even Christmas decorations are in danger.
The plot of A Christmas Carol needs no introduction, in part because there have been so many different adaptations of Charles Dickens’ classic story. But what makes McCarter’s version, adapted by David Thompson and directed with panache by Michael Unger, so special is the attention it gives to details. Thompson doesn’t just tell us that Scrooge is a miserable miser, he shows us. When his sole employee, Bob Cratchit (Allen E. Read), bemoans his low wages, Scrooge says that Cratchit is always “first in line with your hand out”; Cratchit then turns around with a confused expression to see if there are any other staffers he might have somehow missed. Minutes later, when Scrooge’s nephew Fred (James Ludwig) decides to warm up the chilly Scrooge & Marley offices by throwing a spare lump of coal into the stove, an outraged Scrooge opens the stove door and reaches into the flames with his bare hand to pull out the burning coal. For this Scrooge, nothing is too perilous when there are a few shillings to be saved.
Similarly, we’ve all seen Scrooge getting visited by the ghost of his old partner Jacob Marley (Billy Finn); in this version, a ghostly presence begins to make itself known in Scrooge’s house even earlier. Books suddenly fly off the top of a dresser; drawers fly open, then shut; candles in their sconces go aflame and then extinguish themselves. All this oddness leaves Scrooge in an understandably agitated state even before Marley shows up, weighed down by chains, to convince Scrooge of the error of his stingy ways. A Christmas Carol uses similarly enchanted stagecraft throughout its two hours, from puppetry that turns Scrooge’s front door knocker into Marley’s face to flying effects that send Scrooge airborne.
But it’s not just the script and the direction that make this A Christmas Carol an exceptional one. There’s Ming Cho Lee’s lush set design, which puts Scrooge’s house and office on a slant to show us how warped his perspective is. There’s Jess Goldstein’s rich array of costumes, which illuminate the characters in unexpected ways; the deliberately garish costumes for Scrooge’s onetime boss Mr. Fezziwig (Bradley Mott) and his family perfectly sum up their gleefully unrefined personalities. And Rob Ashford’s choreography erupts with energy, especially in an act one number that calls for lots of leaps from the chorus.
Michael Starobin’s has composed original songs, but it is his background music that adds to the mood greatly – particularly the synthesized bassoon and bass that help make the visit from Marley’s Ghost so spooky. (The sound mix on opening night was problematic; an echo effect used for Madeline Fox’s Ghost of Christmas Past made the young actress impossible to decipher at times.)
Tying everything together is Graeme Malcolm’s abundantly varied performance as Scrooge. Tall and gaunt, he stares down the neighborhood children with a scarily sour expression. But when he’s taken into his past and observes the pain he had to go through, we see the realization of what he’s become on his face – and we see him in terror when he sees a vision of his future. Then, on Christmas morning, when he tells his maid “Merry Christmas,” his face convulses in shock, as if he can’t believe that those words have actually come out of his mouth.
Leah Anderson brings a touch of grace to two roles – Belle, the young Scrooge’s lost love, and Lily, the new wife of Scrooge’s nephew. Andrew Davis plays Scrooge as a child, and he’s poignant in scenes where he’s torn apart from his sister (Allison Buck). David Kenner plays a striving young Scrooge making his way in the world, and he’s hilarious in a scene where he recoils in embarrassment from the coarse Mrs. Fezziwig (Kathy Fitzgerald) and her equally unpleasant daughter (Sari Alexander).
Thompson’s script isn’t perfect; some modest comedic embellishments enliven the story during act one, but act two has stretches so bleak that not even Bob Cratchit’s compassionate wife (January LaVoy) and charming children can lighten the mood. But in the end this A Christmas Carol manages to evoke tenderness without becoming sugary sweet. When Scrooge and Tiny Tim (the adorable Jonas Hinsdale) walk offstage together at the play’s end, it may be sentimental, but it’s a sentimentality that’s been earned. The emotions are genuine, and the story’s power to touch the soul is undiminished.
A Christmas Carol has been a tradition at McCarter for over three decades, but even traditions need to be refreshed from time to time. This year marks the 16th and last year for this production; a new script and a new production have been ordered for next year. But don’t worry – as long as there’s heart and showmanship in these parts, Dickens’ spirit will live on here.
Running Time: Two hours, including an intermission.
A Christmas Carol plays through December 27, 2015, in the Matthew Theatre at the McCarter Theatre Center – 91 University Place, in Princeton, NJ. For tickets, call the box office at (609) 258-2787, or purchase them online.