Ah, A Christmas Carol.
Perhaps no performance is more closely associated with the season than this. Thus, welcoming another voice to the chorus almost seems redundant.
Unless it's a production of Triad Stage, newly christened as one of the top ten new theatres in the country. Add, on top of that, award-winning director Preston Lane's confession that this is his all-time favorite story – in his words, "a central myth in the Western world."
In this respect, Lane's adaptation of A Christmas Carol is surely the most anticipated Triad Stage performance ever, and Lane & Company do not disappoint. You will be wowed and at the same time filled with wonder, not only at the ability of this 167-year-old-year old story to endure, but aslo at how Triad Stage makes it all seem new, no matter how many versions you have seen.
No doubt A Christmas Carol has gained audiences by being modernized – some productions throw in everything but (and sometimes including) the kitchen sink. But Lane, true to his directing style, has endeavored to be authentic, sticking to 18th-century costumes, setting, and language like figgy pudding to the bottom of a bowl.
From that, we benefit. Lane's adaptation injects period carols, dancing, and even parlor games that, while a bit curious, transport us to another era. But merriment was not Dickens' sole intention; indeed, the story was as much a political statement about poverty and the mistreatment of children as it was a story of a grouchy old man. It is said that Dickens came up with the plot while walking the streets of London, debating whether to pen a political pamphlet against attitudes toward the poor.
And this dark take is perhaps where Lane achieves another dimension in this period piece. In a kind of "The Nightmare Before A Christmas Carol," a children's ensemble, dressed as street urchins, begins the play by swirling around the misbegotten Scrooge, just as this underlying theme swirls around the tale itself.
The countenance of Jacob Marley (Junious Leak) will truly terrify you, and the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Future (Rebecca Wolf, Rosie McGuire, and Evan Plaste ) are as spirited as a cup of hot wassail on a cold night. McGuire particularly impresses with an operatic ode that drew applause from the audience.
Triad Stage sets are typically larger than life, and this one is no exception. The genius to this theory of set design in a black box theatre is that it pulls in the viewers and makes them feel more a part of the play than mere onlookers. It overwhelms and overtakes, and in doing so, turns the audience into inhabitants of Victorian England, peering through a window pane on a December night.
Scrooge's wild ride, truly mesmerizing, is accomplished with a clever use of projection . Welcome back, Howard C. Jones, scenic designer, and bravo, John Wolf, lighting designer. This collaboration, along with fine effects by projection designer Nicholas Hussong and amazing music by David E. Smith, works like a dream.
The action, of course, centers around Scrooge – Gordon Joseph Weiss, last seen at Triad Stage in the hilarious Tartuffe. Weiss has everything a great Scrooge needs, which basically is nothing, and the ability to convey that to audiences is harder than it might seem. Hair that looks like it hasn't been washed since last year helps, too.
Then there's the properly obsequious Josh Foldy as Bob Cratchit. Cratchit is a pivotal character in A Christmas Carol, necessary to make Scrooge look all the more cruel and bitter. We don't usually think of Cratchit as humorous, but we find ourselves chuckling at Foldy's shaking and quaking depiction.
Emily Kester, in her Triad Stage debut, glows as Scrooge's young fiancee, and Matthew Delaney as the young Scrooge portrays the man before obsessive-compulsive disorder took over. A UNCG senior and MFA candidate, respectively, Kester and Delaney certainly have bright acting futures ahead of them.
And there's TS fave Michael Tourek. As Triad Stage-goers know, any play with Tourek is going to be fun, and there's a lot of fun in this show, all contrasting Scrooge's miserable existence.
Narrator Cassandra Lowe Williams will be familiar to Triad Stage-goers as the wonderful Ethel Waters in Ethel Waters: His Eye is on the Sparrow. Her Jamaican accent, both incongruous and at the same time completely beguiling, adds another layer of richness to this production. Through the years of countless adaptations, narrators have included Sir John Gielgud and Tom Bosley, so Williams has big shoes to fill.
Some might say Lane sacrifices character development for authenticity in sticking closely to Dickens' vision, but in a 90-minute show (with no intermission), there's hardly room for both.
Kelsey Hunt is at her best and most festive in the costume department, and, for once, let's not forget vocal coach Christine Morris, who drilled all the children (and adults) in their wonderful British accents, not one of which seemed forced or fake. With seven youngsters in the cast, this becomes as much children's theatre as adult, and the young ones' unscripted yawns are one of the delights of the show.
Lane's wish, as set down in the playbill, was for the play to haunt audiences. You get the feeling that this is not just A Christmas Carol but THE Christmas Carol, as Dickens intended. And somehow, it even feels like Dickens is there, somewhere, watching, musing and, ultimately, applauding.
A fine holiday haunting, indeed.
This production continues through 12/24; for details, see our calendar.