Review: ‘A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas’ at Olney Theatre Center

Actor Paul Morella returns for the 9th year in this holiday family favorite.

The entryway to the Muritz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab at the Olney Theatre Center is lined with holiday lights and garnish. The cozy lobby is adorned with electric candles and sprigs of holly, creating a winter warmth that one might feel entering a guest’s parlor at the holidays.

Paul Morella in Olney Theatre Center's production of A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas. Photo by Stan Barouh.
Paul Morella in Olney Theatre Center’s production of A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas. Photo by Stan Barouh.

A tall, friendly, unassuming gentleman greets you with a handshake, introduces himself, and shows you to your seat. What a nice gentleman. He deserves a complimentary ticket for being so courteous. In a manner of speaking, he does get a ticket, to center stage, where this same gentleman, the brilliant and captivating Paul Morella, opens his adapted retelling of Charles Dickens’ original version of A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas.

Morella plays almost 50 characters in his retelling, stating that he maintains 99% of the original novella designed to be performed by one person. Dickens himself was the first to portray this narrator through past, present, and future; he would be proud of how Morella both honors and re-imagines his work. Morella relishes the opportunity to both pay tribute to the original work of Dickens and expand his own vision year after year.

The set is as much a character as any portrayed by Morella. The stage is littered with old books, writings, clocks, candlesticks, knick-knacks, widgets, and more. It looks like Albert Einstein’s lab if he had been a writer. The footlights are cleverly masked by books standing on end, the ottoman doubles as a turkey, and the candles are lit and purposeful. A partially paned glass ceiling dangles from the rafters, creating the illusion of an enclosure while also allowing light in a variety of configurations. Speaking of which…

Sonya Dowhaluk’s lighting design is crucial and exquisite. The lighting changes subtly and dramatically, depending on the scene, and the creepy effect on Morella as he portrays various ghosts seems to transform his face into a new shape. The lightning that opens the show is startling, snuffed candles are accompanied by a sharp blackout, and white light changes tone with each sojourn with the host ghost. There is a clever effect that creates a shadow of a top hat and coat, which doubles as one of Scrooge’s ghostly false alarms.

Sound design by Edward Moser and Ryan Gravett is the technical genius of this production. The levels are perfect, the selection of crowd noises and background sound adds life to every scene, and countless sound effects make the audience feel as if it is on the streets of London or at a festive party. There are too many incredibly rich sounds to list, so feel free to attend the show and marvel in your own time.

Paul Morella in A Christmas Carol. a Ghost Story of Christmas. Photo by Stan Barouh.
Paul Morella in A Christmas Carol. a Ghost Story of Christmas. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Photo frames hang from the ceiling, serving as projectors to mark subtle scene changes. Patrick W. Lord’s projection design is especially powerful upon the entrance of the Ghost of Christmas Present. The entire back wall turns into a planetarium of snowflakes, gently falling as the ghost explains his purpose to Scrooge.

The real star is, of course, Morella. His characters change in obvious ways (tone of voice, accent, volume) and in subtle ways (eye twitching and blinking, hand flapping, stance, head tilts and countless others). Morella is so convincing as each character that the audience can easily forget that he is only one person. He portrays an entire party scene with the fervor and excitement of the real thing, circling round and round with one chair to portray several dancers in line.

You will be hard-pressed to find anybody in the audience who is not taken in by Morella’s multiple characters speaking to each other and interacting realistically. This is a stunning performance by a man who continues to bring this show to new life every season, this being his ninth.

A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas is what live theatre is all about: teamwork, vision, imagination, and exceptional talent. There are too many reasons not to miss it. So don’t. Get tickets today.

Recommended for ages 10 and up.

Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes including one 15 minute intermission.

A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas plays through December 30, 2018, at the Theatre Center Muritz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab – 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, in Olney, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 924-3400 or go online.