Review: ‘A Christmas Carol’ at Rooftop Productions

It’s been said that Charles Dickens invented Christmas. He didn’t, but A Christmas Carol, published in 1843, certainly transformed people’s attitudes about the celebration. The author William Makepeace Thackeray declared that A Christmas Carol “occasioned immense hospitality throughout England [and] caused a wonderful outpouring of Christmas feelings.” According to the University of Santa Cruz Dickens Project, “The aristocracy and the gentry…had lost their role in hosting festivities. They and those members of the middle classes who followed them in behavior were making little of Christmas. It was their behavior that A Christmas Carol changed. It prompted them to follow the example of humbler folk who had never stopped making merry.”

This staged version by Rooftop Productions of A Christmas Carol will shower its audience—be they royals, nobles or commoners—with festive feelings, and will be enjoyed by even the most determined curmudgeon.

Jay Tilley (Ebenezer Scrooge). Photo courtesy of Rooftop Productions.
Jay Tilley (Ebenezer Scrooge). Photo courtesy of Rooftop Productions.

We last saw Jay Tilley (Ebenezer Scrooge) earlier this year in a production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, in which his power and presence commanded the stage. As Scrooge, he is no less impressive. His miserly, nasty, old man is brilliant, and “Bah humbug!” has never been spat with such vitriol. Tilley struts, protests, squints, paces and harrumphs with elegant and malevolent gusto. He begins as the eminent killjoy, the nay-sayer par-excellence whose self-centeredness melts into doubt, dread, and discomfort as the play proceeds. As the very personification of parsimonious greed, his gradual redemption is refreshingly heartfelt, with a quality of sincerity in its performance that is the hallmark of some of Mr. Tilley’s best work. You can’t help but smile at the old curmudgeon’s redemption, many times as you may have heard the story before.

Jim Harris’ kindly-spoken and very human Cratchit lends a sympathy to the family that leads us to recognize their humility and allows us to root for them from the onset. Josh Vest (Fred), good natured and ever optimistic as Scrooge’s Christmas-loving nephew, helps Cratchit to convince us that they believe, as should we, that there are some redeeming values in the old man, some Christmas spirit only they can see. They believe in miracles, and make us believe as well.

The play has a large cast, with most actors taking on numerous roles. Director Ted Ballard’s Mr. Topper stands out in several comedic and clever moments throughout the show. Kathryn Carradice, as a street urchin, delivers a mournfully captivating moment of song very early in the production. Jason Foster’s Jacob Marley, dead seven years and yet still active, is by far the most terrifying of the spirits, with his chilling delivery and ominous pronouncements setting the scene for what’s to come.

One waits, of course, for the other specters to arrive; they are, after all, the reason we’re here. There’s a delicious thrill to the foreboding; we want to shudder in the knowledge of the terrible possibilities the future holds for Scrooge, and to witness the comeuppance of an atoning pinchpenny.

Is there, in all of literature, a better known trio of spirits? The ghosts are perfectly Dickensian, the embodiment of the moments that they come to represent in Scrooge’s history. Amy Treat as the Ghost of Christmas Past is pale and ethereal, while Dominique Herring as the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is stern, silent, and stoic. Her silence speaks louder than any admonitions. Daniel Holmes as the Ghost of Christmas Present alternates between jovial and commanding, introducing Scrooge none-too-kindly to the truth about the Cratchit family poverty. We watch Scrooge cower in their presence and are pleased by the apparitions’ stern messages. This is what we would wish on contrarians, this nighttime visitation by phantoms.

The rest of the ensemble adds life, color, and music to a beautifully spirited production. Director Ted Ballard has created an inviting, classic portrayal of Dickens’ famous story. Choreographer Kimberly Geipel arranged a merry dance. Sound Designer Dale Walsh and Lighting Designer Kelly Gliptis deserve a round of applause for their work. It’s difficult to stage a play that has seen so many iterations, and they do a masterful job. Ballard’s set design and Mandy Ken’s costumes perfectly complement the scene.

For all those for whom Christmas would not be Christmas without an assortment of carols, rest assured you will not be disappointed. There are Christmas songs throughout.

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A Christmas Carol plays through December 11, 2016, at Rooftop Productions performing at the Kellar Family Theatre at the Center for the Arts at The Candy Factory – 9419 Battle Street, in Manassas, VA. For tickets, buy them at the door or purchase them online.

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Thierry J Sagnier
Thierry J. Sagnier is a writer and Pushcart Prize Nominee whose works have been published in major newspapers and reviews in the United States and abroad. He is the author of 'The IFO Report' (Avon Books), 'Bike! Motorcycles and the People who Ride Them' (Harper & Row), and 'Washington by Night' (Washingtonian Books). His short story, 'Lunch with the General,' published in Chrysalis Reader, was nominated for a 2013 Pushcart Prize. He is also the author of two online works published by Pigasus Books: 'Thirst,' a thriller based in Washington, D.C.’s mean streets, and 'Writing about People, Places and Things,' a collection of essays chronicling his thoughts on writing, family, and friendships, and his bout with cancer. He was Senior Writer with the World Bank, has traveled widely and written magazine, newspaper articles, documentary films, and radio scripts about development issues. He lives in Virginia.