By James V. Ruocco
In Hartford Stage's "A Christmas Carol," a thrilling, often mesmerizing tale of Scrooge redemption, spirits fly through the air, dance eerily about in frenzied Dickensian madness, soar high above the stage and disappear into the rafters or emerge through fiery trap doors, that, no doubt, lead to the depths of hell below.
That, of, course, is just one of the many marvels of this expensive, elegant, smartly-staged production that has dazzled and cajoled theatergoers for 20 years, many of whom return year after year or bring with them someone new who, strangely, has never seen a live version of "A Christmas Carol" before.
Adapted and originally directed by the phenomenal Michael Wilson, the production itself retains much of Dickens flavorful verbage, its marvelous presentiments, it history and sense of detail, its clash of cultures and customs and its mad, piercing sounds of thunder and lightning that snap, crackle and pop in deliciously wicked delight. All of which is impossible to resist in this epic interpretation of the famous 19th century English holiday classic.
The story of "A Christmas Carol" is a familiar one.
Ebenezer Scrooge, a miserable old miser of considerable wealth finds himself hating almost everything that has to do with Christmas from gift giving and Christmas caroling to family gatherings and celebrations that pay homage to Father Christmas and that contagious holiday cheer. He, of course, will have absolutely nothing to do with it.
But all of that is about to change.
On Christmas Eve, the ghost of his deceased business partner, Jacob Marley comes calling to warn him about his dastardly deeds and unkind treatment of those around him. In short, if he refuses to change, he'll end up sad, lonely and unhappy in the afterlife just like you-know-who.
To set the record straight, Marley, through unexplained means, invites The Spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Future to pay Scrooge a visit hoping to elicit change by showing him moments from his life that could and will prompt his eventual downfall. You pretty much know the rest.
The production itself is gorgeous to look at with so much attention paid to detail (sets, lighting, sound, special effects, props, costumes and projections are marvelously "spot on"), it plays like something you'd find at London's Drury Lane or National Theatre. It is indeed a feast for the eyes, but a very, very English one at that. And that is precisely what makes it soar.
Director Rachel Alderman crafts a production that is utterly beguiling, charming, edgy, dizzying and joyously atmospheric. This is London, make no mistake about it. But it's London, Dickens style, in all its wonderful glory. Every piece of the Dickensian puzzle is addressed from clocks that spin and spin to ghosts that haunt and taunt at midnight to opportunities that are lost for good whilst elsewhere, unhappy families and workers long for something blissful and wonderful at Christmastime.
For Hartford Stage, Alderman assembles a first-class cast of actors who address and reenact "A Christmas Carol" seriously, reveling in its many mood swings, dramas, hauntings, jolts, twists, surprises, comedy, pronouncements and its 19th century manners and customs. Nobody makes a false move. Nobody steps out of character. Nobody looks out of place. Everything that happens, both good or bad, happens for real without any calculation, hesitation or stagy excessiveness.
What's fun about this version of "A Christmas Carol" is that it never mistreats, mistrusts or missteps the actual material on which it is based. Alderman has done her homework and done it well. The pacing, the shading, the nuances, the interactions, the characterizations, the line delivery of the cast and the story's advancement is incredibly wonderful. You smile. You laugh. You cry. You jump. You clap. You cheer.
Yes, you know the story. Yes, you know the characters. Yes, you know how it all ends. But, so what. Alderman asks you to forget all that, if only for a moment or two, close your eyes, transport yourself to Victorian England and indulge in the wonderful, wonderful world of her Dickensian, often cinematic creation.
There is nothing gimmicky, calculated or one-note about Michael Preston's Ebenezer Scrooge. He's the real deal from the moment he steps onto the stage right through to the final curtain call. He's cantankerous, condescending, miserable, unkind and totally oblivious to the world around him, just the way Dickens intended. That said, the actor inhabits the role in such engaging, money-grabbing ways, we not only want to follow him on his journey toward eventual redemption but cheer him every step of the way.
As the chained and tormented Jacob Marley, Noble Shropshire is appropriately spooky and menancing as he taunts Scrooge with his strange pronouncements about doom, gloom, hardships and suffering and how his own selfish ways have led to his own punishment. The performance, the staging and the sound-and-light show that ensues, is all quite spectacular. As is, Shropshire's silly portrayal of Scrooge's housekeeper Mrs. Dilber, which often drifts into cheeky high camp, thus, eliciting huge belly laughs whenever he's on stage.
Magical, dazzling and thrilling, this "Christmas Carol" is a love song to all things Christmas. Its oft-told tale of redemption is both English and Dickensian, chock full of wisdom, spectacle, merriment and 19th century nostalgia. See it, you will. But be forewarned, once the spell is broken, you're more than likely going to return for a second or third helping. It simply cannot be helped.
Photos by T. Charles Erickson
"A Christmas Carol" is being presented at Hartford Stage (50 Church St, Hartford, CT), now through Dec. 30.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 527-5151.