There’s an abundance of treats offered by director Matthew Warchus’ staging of A Christmas Carol – like Andrea Martin dressed as a Victorian caroler mingling with the audience at Broadway Lyceum Theatre, handing out Clementines and cookies before curtain – but perhaps the best is the revelation that the Dickens chestnut can still inspire such a vibrant, compassionate and timely telling.
Adapted by playwright Jack Thorne (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child), and starring Campbell Scott as Scrooge, Martin and LaChanze as the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present, respectively, this Carol (with different casts) has become something of a holiday tradition at London’s Old Vic. Broadway should be so lucky.
With a few moments of immersive theater – a feast in Act II cleverly and playfully makes its way to the (imagined) threadbare Cratchit home in a delightful manner than won’t be spoiled here – this Carol is presented on a dreamlike, lantern-glowing set designed by Tony winner Rob Howell (who also does the Victorian dress) that relies in part on our familiarity with the tale. Long lengths of chain hang from the flies like a beaded-curtain backdrop. Four empty door frames occasionally rise up from the stage floor, suggesting the rooms that we already know to be the old miser’s office or bedroom or a gateway to a world of chained and moaning ghosts.
While not always faithful to its source (Young Scrooge, sweetly played by Dan Piering, is given a drunken, abusive father, and old Fezziwig, sympathetically played by Evan Harrington, is an undertaker, among other alterations and additions), Thorne’s adaptation pays off in its gambles. If it feels abridged and rushed at first – some secondary characters are melded together, and we’re done with the Christmas Present section by intermission – this Carol goes to new places with the inevitability of a clock chime.
Campbell Scott is a more robust Scrooge than we’re used to seeing, making his cruelty, stubbornness and greed seem credible and intractable. This Ebenezer is no push-over, holding tight to a brutal philosophy that leaves the greedy, grasping money-lender with no guilt for the many shuddered shops and ruined lives in his old town. Message for our times undoubtedly intentional.
Thorne and Warchus (Matilda, God of Carnage) also take some liberties with the ghosts. Marley (Chris Hoch, pulling double duty as Scrooge’s cruel father) is traditional enough, but a sadly underused Andrea Martin, with a Cockney accent and pushing a baby carriage, and LaChanze, wearing shades and speaking with a Jamaican or West Indies lilt, are as fresh as a new poinsettia.
Even more off the beaten Scrooge path is young Ebenezer’s youthful love for Belle (a moving Sarah Hunt), here played as the daughter of Old Fezziwig and more fully fleshed out than in most Carols (and given more reason than ever to despair over the man Scrooge becomes). Thorne and Warchus don’t shy from showing the more brutal consequences of Scrooge’s greed: I won’t give away the details of a particularly emotional scene except to say the death of Tiny Tim is not merely rendered as an abandoned crutch leaning against a hearth.
Dashiell Eaves and Erica Dorfler make for an endearing Bob and Mrs. Cratchit, both quite powerful in that killer Tiny Tim scene, and the production wins hearts with the casting of Sebastian Ortiz and Jai Ram Srinivasan (alternating performances; Srinivasan was at the reviewed performance), both crowd-pleasing young actors living with cerebral palsy.
By the time of Scrooge’s well-played and nicely credible conversion shortly into the second act, audiences will suspect this Carol must have some tricks up its sleeves, if only to run out the clock, and Thorne comes up with a few scenes that only the most rigid of Dickens purists could begrudge: In one, Scrooge ties up a long-ago loose thread, and the meeting has a surprising emotional punch. So too do the newly invented eulogies spoken at Scrooge’s future funeral, all well-written and performed (like Eaves and Hunt, Brandon Gill makes the most of his spotlight moments as Scrooge’s nephew Fred).
If Warchus doesn’t always stick to his Dickens, he jumps enthusiastically into the author’s joyous Christmas cheer midway through the second act, when the cast breaks the fourth wall to enlist the entire theater, audience included, in the “preparation” of a massive feast – apples and oranges roll onto the stage from the balconies in most imaginative ways, vegetables drop from above with little parachutes, snow blows and the performers turn into bell-ringing carolers. Somehow it all works, by sheer force of spirit.
A Christmas Carol opens tonight at the Lyceum Theatre, and will play a strictly limited engagement through Sunday, January 5, 2020.