Kevin Campbell is a fairly old hand at portraying Ebenezer Scrooge. Children who were unborn when Campbell first took on the Yuletide role at Theatre Charlotte five years ago are beginning to show up for the current edition of A Christmas Carol. Significant evolutions have occurred since that first 2007 foray. For two years, Scrooge was part of a dual role in an adaptation by Doris Baizley, with Campbell starting out as a cynical stage manager who is prevailed upon to step into the breech when an actor scheduled to play Scrooge in his company’s A Christmas Carol abandons the show – somehow resulting in a double-layered character transformation. The current adaptation by John Jakes, in which Campbell is now starring for the fourth time, is far more straightforward: its only wrinkle is the insertion of the young Charles Dickens as our narrator. He appears before us book in hand and begins to read his fable to us, but like a classic MGM movie, the pretense quickly dissolves, Dickens parts the curtains, and our play begins, not without periodic visitations from the author afterwards.
The biggest difference in this year’s production is that Campbell is the stage director for the first time. Freed entirely to choose his own course, Campbell as star and director doesn’t appear to be wildly liberated from the thrust of his past work or the tyranny of past directors. But the three Scrooges are not altogether the same as Campbell has portrayed them before. The first Scrooge – the miserly, curmudgeonly Christmas-hater before Jacob Marley’s spooktacular intervention – often seems more nonchalant and natural than before, throwing his iconoclastic outbursts into bolder relief and making Scrooge a less comical, less cartoonish figure.
We meet a second Scrooge, the conflicted Scrooge, at the moment Marley appears to him in his doorknocker on Christmas Eve after a typical misanthropic day at the office. If Campbell’s approach yields a blander Scrooge in the early going, his widening of Ebenezer’s dynamic range pays rich dividends in the central stage when the cavalcade of his past, present, and likely future chastise him, prod him into serious self-examination, and ultimately redeem him. It’s a relatively dull business if Scrooge steadily improves during the three visits of the Christmas ghosts. Campbell makes Scrooge more akin to the Pharaoh of Exodus under the assault of the plagues, relapsing into resistance and self-assurance after experiencing the sting of shame and the anguish of regret – until he is broken by the tawdriness of his oncoming death and the shadow of Marley’s fate. The third Scrooge, Scrooge redeemed and reborn, has always drawn the best from Campbell. He captures the joy and laughter of a man getting to celebrate life after a long drought of stinginess, resentment and self-denial, but he also grasps the out-of-body aspect of the denouement, awestruck and tickled at the prospect of what he was and what he has become.
What visual splendor we see is largely the work of costume designer Jamey Varnadore. Set design by Chris Timmons is spare and humble, but his pieces slide slickly in and out so that the many scene changes remain unobtrusive, and Timmons’ lighting effectively sustains a dank, macabre gloom until the dawn of Christmas morning. Sound designer Vito Abate applies the crowning touch to the best of the cameo performances, Jim Greenwood as Jacob Marley, with a marvelously eerie echo effect. With 32 actors onstage (half of them playing multiple roles) plus four choristers, a certain amount of miscasting is inevitable outside Hollywood. It’s best to be amused when this happens, when Young Scrooge’s younger sister Fan towers over him, or when Marcus Riter brings a strong build and leading-man looks to Bob Cratchit, about as capable of seeming subservient as Sean Connery.
Aside from those anomalies, the performances nearly always transcend community theater diffidence and awkwardness. Victor Sayegh personifies polish as Dickens, and Paul Ash brings a fine jollity to Fezziwig. Poppy Pritchett positively glitters as the Ghost of Christmas Past, Ellentinya Dodd effervesces as the Ghost of Christmas Present, and Christian Muller is already fairly fearsome as Ebenezer’s Schoolmaster before he mutely reappears as the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Among the minor players, I’ll single out Chase Law as Mrs. Cratchit and Noah Carroll as the remarkable Turkey Boy – along with the uncredited person who effectively barred a single Southern drawl from ever marring the occasion.
A Christmas Carol continues through December 16. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.