“A Christmas Carol” endures. No matter how many times it is read or seen, or how indelibly familiar it becomes, Charles Dickens’ 176-year-old story about the redemption of antisocial tightwad Ebenezer Scrooge retains the power to entertain and to move, with sentiment rather than sentimentality. It’s that good and shrewdly constructed a piece.
During this time of year myriad adaptations of “A Christmas Carol” show up on local stages. A list I keep counts 10 in the region, and I know of others I did not include.
New Brunswick’s Crossroads Theatre has elected to do a musical version that was written by theater-savvy Lynn Ahrens and Mike Ockrent, with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Ahrens, to be an annual winter centerpiece for New York’s Madison Square Garden.
Indeed, that’s where Crossroads artistic director Marshall Jones III saw it season after season as a member of the Garden staff.
The production Jones directs for Crossroads is a mixed bag. Dickens prevails in that the change in Scrooge brings both joy and tears, and key moments in his metamorphosis register as important. But the Crossroads show tends more toward simplicity than depth. There’s little atmosphere or intensity. A classic story is left on its own to do work it can manage, but theatrically all is done with businesslike efficiency. It’s like someone telling the story without putting emphasis on anything, reciting without creating the mood or majesty inherent in the tale. The story makes its point, and even entertains, but it never soars and rarely becomes more than literarily involving.
Part of this comes from the Crossroads mounting seeming more spare than sumptuous.
In a program note, Jones writes of the Madison Square Garden stage being “cavernous.” On this occasion the stage of the Elizabeth Ross Johnson Theatre in the new New Brunswick Performing Arts Center also seems massive. Jones’ production gets lost, or diffused, in the large space. Scrooge’s world seems dwarfed by emptiness. Jones’ game but small troupe seems too widely dispersed in the wide voids that are only rarely occupied by set pieces.
Except for a few large production numbers by choreographer Camille Moten, the Johnson stage never seems filled or bustling enough. Crowd scenes of Victorian London come off as sparse and stingy. Rather than suggest the robust activity of a big, busy city, the small group of people, usually arranged in a semi-circle pattern, make one wonder where everyone in London is.
Moten, as mentioned, makes a big difference when she makes the stage teem with a rousing version of Menken and Ahrens’s “Link by Link,” Marley’s explanation of the chain he carries through eternity, and “Mr. Fezziwig’s Annual Christmas Ball,” an extensive number that features several dance styles and advances the “Christmas Carol” story by covering Scrooge’s youth and lone romance, while remaining lively and giving the overall production needed tone and sprightliness.
Crossroads may have been working on a tight budget. Musicals are expensive to produce, but economy doesn’t explain the absence of some iconic “Christmas Carol” accoutrements, such as a distinctive knocker for Scrooge’s door or curtains, rings and all, for his bed.
Individual performances often picked up the slack. Matt Provencal, as the visiting ghost Marley, perks up the proceedings 1,000 percent with his personal energy and deft way of telling Marley’s story of having to work off the negligence of humanity during his life before he can attain a peaceful afterlife. Provencal commands the large stage. His song, “Link by Link” is cited as one of the show’s rewards.
Justine Rappaport also infuses this “Christmas Carol” with a needed boost when she appears as a jazzy, sarcastic Ghost of Christmas Past leading Scrooge through his childhood and reminding him he was once spirited and embracing of life. Dwayne Clark is, appropriately, merry and stern as the Ghost of Christmas Present.
Sequences involving the Fezziwigs leaven any “Christmas Carol,” and Jones’ staging benefits greatly by the zeal and panache of the young Scrooge (Andre Revels) and Marley (Daniel Youngelman), who caper grandly through the promise of early adulthood and hint at their coming miserliness while seeming to be young men on the brink of a comfortable life.
A correct, and welcome, touch of dramatic sentiment comes in a follow-up scene to the Fezziwig ball when Scrooge’s fiancee, called Emily in this musical, returns his engagement ring.
Tavia Rivee, who plays Emily, and Jessa V. Salerno, who plays Mrs. Fezziwig, reveal beautiful voices in choral roles. Luke Naphat stands out as a particularly lively and enthusiastic member of the chorus.
Count Stovall is a fine Scrooge. He can bluster like a proper curmudgeon, show enjoyment in comments Scrooge finds witty but others find horrifying, and react to scenes from Scrooge’s past, present, and future. Stovall seems to like playing the playful, benevolent sequences that follow Scrooge’s redemption.
Ahrens ranks as one of the better lyricists of our time, and her work here doesn’t disappoint. She and Ockrent remain faithful to Dickens in most details. Menken’s music is Broadway bright.
David Gordon wasn’t asked to do much with the set. Theo Campbell has some fun with costumes, especially Rappaport’s.
A Christmas Carol, Crossroads Theatre, Elizabeth Ross Johnson Theatre, New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, 11 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Through Sunday, December 15. $55 732-545-8100 or www.crossroadstheatrecompany.org.