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Review: ‘A Christmas Carol’ at McCarter Theatre Center

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I cried while watching Adam Immerwahr’s revamped production of A Christmas Carol for McCarter Theatre Center.

Immerwahr’s redo is less opulent, more spare, and aims for more intimacy and realism, but like its predecessors, shines as a moving, telling version of the familiar Dickens tale. You may think you know Scrooge, Marley, Fred, and the Cratchits beyond needing reminder. Ain’t necessarily so! Immerwahr and company may not show you anything illuminatingly new, but they will break your hearts with the causes of Scrooge’s transformation, interest you thoroughly in Dickens’s story, and entertain you with some first-rate theater.

“Spirit” is the watchword of A Christmas Carol, and the McCarter troupe infuses the large Matthews Theatre with it. Costumed extras greet and schmooze with you as you enter or partake of pre-show snacks. Music, including an excellent bell chorus and some gently introduced sing-alongs, leaven, then celebrate, what is really a serious saga about a man who rediscovers his humanity and sense of fellowship in three harrowing hours during which he’s confronted with a past he’s forgotten, a present that’s lonely, and a future that can be changed for the better if only he can.

Greg Wood (Ebenezer Scrooge). Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

That, along with sterling performances by Greg Wood, Frank X, Lance Roberts, and Mimi Francis, is the crux of Immerwahr’s staging. Scrooge’s encounter with his past is sentimental. You can see Wood’s heart being touched as he watches formative events from his past, events that no longer influence him the way they might. His confrontation with his present is enlightening. Wood’s Scrooge doesn’t wait until the third set of images, the future’s, to realized his spectral escorts are well-meaning. From Wood’s expressions and the tone in which he asks about whether scenarios are fixed, you see revelation coming early and how welcome and sincere it is. Wood’s Scrooge is affected throughout, so the MCCarter audience takes a deep travel with him. The visit by the third ghost is more horrible because Wood’s Scrooge doesn’t need it. His resolve was set during a  projected game of “Yes and No” at his nephew’s home and assessing the paltriness of the Cratchits’ oohed-at goose and the extent of Tiny Tim’s illness. Wood’s performance with Francis’s Ghost of Christmas Present, made me like and care enough about Scrooge that I loathed the idea of his ridiculed death rather than seeing it as final comeuppance or decisive jog to his character.

Greg Wood (Ebenezer Scrooge, at center) and The Company. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

You wonder as I praise so lavishly how I can say Immerwahr’s production does not surpass others than have appeared at McCarter from Nagle Jackson’s days to Michael Unger’s version. It’s because McCarter has always produced the best A Christmas Carol the region offers. Immerwahr’s staging add to and enhances this tradition.

Immerwahr does supply his own tone. His Victorian London is more claustrophobic and Dickensian than Jackson’s or Unger’s. And more squalid. While the shadow of St. Paul’s remains from previous McCarter sets, it stays in the background No London Bridge emerges. Nor do wide lanes or an expansive London. Immerwahr depends more on light and movement for his images. You see spirits and monsters haunting Scrooge. You see Scrooge’s image enlarged, sometimes for grim effect, sometimes for comic. Christmas Present uses an Escher staircase, spinning at seeming will, for simple but grand results. Locale are represented by the barest of props. Images that rate focus, such as Scrooge’s snow globe or Tiny Tim’s empty chair, are used with full effectiveness.

Greg Wood never conveys meanness as Scrooge. The same humor that allows him to tease Bob Cratchit and his charwoman, Mrs. Dilber, about their Christmas surprises, is seen in his sharp answers to his nephew or charity solicitors. He is more a man set in his ways and immune to the community ceremony or impracticality than misanthropic. He has derived comfort from security that hasn’t come in other forms, such as love or friendship, and that informs his general being and attitudes.

By showing glimmers of Scrooge’s humanity and hinting at wit behind his severe declarations from the beginning, Wood sets an early and welcome tone for Scrooge’s redemption. Wood can also rage, be stern, and express fear when needed.

Frank X excels by giving depth and personality to two small parts. He also endows Immerwahr’s production with a sense of the classic via his magnificent, expressive voice. His Marley can be as familiar as it is cautionary to Scrooge. His Joe, the pawn broker, is a rogue of devilish proportion while having humor about his questionable profession.

Lance Roberts, as the affable but lax Mr. Fezziwig, exudes the easy humanity Dickens wants for Scrooge. He is especially effective in a scene is which he is meant to be stern. Anne L. Nathan brings some Broadway-level brightness to her turns as Mrs. Fezziweg and a guest at the nephew’s party.

Mimi Francis is so festive and sardonic as Ghost of Christmas Present, she becomes the perfect guide and tutor for a man who realizes, because of her, he needs reform.

Liam McKernan (Tiny Tim) and Greg Wood (Ebenezer Scrooge). Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Ivy Cordle is precise and posed as Ghost of Christmas Past. Jessica Bedford makes the most of her scenes as Mrs. Cratchit, especially the one in which she reacts to Bob’s toasting Scrooge as the founder of the Cratchit feast. Jamilla Sabares-Klemm provides great love and liveliness as Scrooge’s new niece-in-law, Lily, and lost love, Belle. The parting of Scrooge and Belle is especially touching.

Kudos also to Liam McKernan as Tiny Tim, J.D. Taylor as Fred, the nephew, A.J. Shively as Young Scrooge, Elisha Lawson as Young Marley, and Sue Jin Song as a constantly bewildered Mrs. Dilber.

Lorin Latarro, as is her wont, brings sprightly gaiety to all dances, especially the celebration at the finale. Lap Chi Chu’s lighting was constantly effective while Linda Cho’s costumes were just right. Chu was aided by special effects by Jeremy Chernick. Daniel Ostliing’s set did well in contrasting bleak and bright sections of the Dickens story and Dickensian London. Darron L. West’s sound design enhanced several key moments.

A Christmas Carol plays through December 31, 2o16, at McCarter Theatre Center – 91 University Place, in Princeton, New Jersey. For tickets, call the box office at (609) 258-2787, or purchase them online.

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