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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the December 6,

2000 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

For this `Carol,’ a Dark Look: Ming Cho Lee

At one point in one’s life one should do a `A


Carol,’" says eminent set designer Ming Cho Lee. Evidently Lee

has arrived at this precise point in his long and distinguished


Lee’s artistic vision — one that has brought him accolades for

almost half a century — will frame McCarter Theater’s brand new

production of Charles Dickens’ classic story, celebrating the 20th

year that the perennial favorite has been presented in Princeton.

Performances are continuing at McCarter to Thursday, December 24


Lee is frank about how challenging he finds this production of "A

Christmas Carol."

"There’s a lot of story to tell, and there are so many things

in the play that are magic driven," he says. "I felt very

strongly from the beginning that `A Christmas Carol’ is not a very

pretty show. The journey that Scrooge takes in order to become a more

humane human being presents him as a product of his time. The


Revolution is shown at its worst — with the exploitation of


and people starving. It’s a very dark period. I wanted the darkness

of this time to be reflected in my designs." He’s willing to admit

that his conception may, indeed, be darker than other productions.

Lee says there’s a saying in contemporary theater that "a good

set designer is sometimes the best dramaturg." It is the


not the actors, he explaines, who initially meet with the director

to decide the show’s approach.

"We ask ourselves: What is the point of view? Is it contemporary

or set in another period? What statement do we want to make? And what

is the payoff of the show?"

When I asked what exactly he wants his sets to convey to the audience

when the curtain rises, I didn’t expect the answer I received: "I

want my sets to look good." Elaborating further, Lee explains

that conveying the spirit of the piece is primary, and reducing the

design from being totally decorative to express the essence of the

piece helps to make a total world in which all the events take place.

At 70 years of age, Lee remains active as both designer and teacher.

Born in Shanghai, the New York resident won the coveted Tony Award

for his awesome set for "K2," and served from 1962 to 1973

as the principal designer for the New York Shakespeare Festival. He

teaches at Yale where he has been professor design and co-chairman

of the design department at the Yale School of Drama since 1970.

Although he says he loves designing for Broadway (shows

that include the Tony-nominated, but lasting only one night


"The Two Gentlemen of Verona," "The Shadow Box," and

another legendary one-nighter, "La Strada"), Lee has received

most accolades for his settings for the Metropolitan Opera, San


Opera, and New York City Opera. These, as well as for his designs

for the dance companies of Jose Limon, Martha Graham, Gerald Arpino,

and Alvin Ailey, have made Lee "quite possibly the most


designer in the United States."

"I believe that your work is informed by your life experience,

and your life experiences are informed by your work," says Lee,

conceptualizing life as a circle. He talks about how different a


he would be if he were not a teacher. "Teaching sharpens my work,

keeps me on my toes. Teaching forces me to be aware of what’s going

on and what’s in other designer’s minds. But, if I didn’t design


I would be less of a teacher."

Having earned the title "Dean of Designers," Lee isn’t above

expressing his concerns regarding the production during a lively phone


"It’s a very difficult show to design," says Lee. "There

is a lot of magic that I am required to deal with, and I hate it."

After years of seeing other productions, he say he was never really

frightened by Scrooge. "I saw this horrible production at Madison

Square Garden that is all about people flying and musical numbers.

This is not doing Dickens justice," he says. Yet he concedes that

there are, indeed, a lot of ghosts that need to appear and disappear.

You can be sure that Lee’s disdain for the usual stage magic has


him to create magical elements that we haven’t seen or dreamt of


Lee also expresses concern over whether this big production is


McCarter’s resources. Considering his wide experience designing for

opera, it is hardly surprising to hear him say, "I hate designing

a huge production that could bankrupt a theater." He then candidly

adds, "They are having a hard time getting it done."

Like all anxiety-plagued artists, he worries about the shortage of

available labor, and the time remaining before opening night. A little

cautious about all the things left to do in a short time, Lee thinks

that audiences will probably see a more complete production next year.

"Every theater that attempts to do `A Christmas Carol’ discovers

how huge a show it really is," he says. In the case of the


stage, he explains that the backstage space is okay, but really not

big enough to service the large proscenium opening.

"If you are doing a show that has modest technical demands, it’s

a good stage," he says. "But by the time you are doing `A

Christmas Carol,’ you have a little problem fitting everything into

the space. But we are doing it."

"There is the London street, the exterior and interior of the

counting house, the exterior of Scrooge’s house, his bedroom, a school

yard, a grave yard, Bob Cratchit’s place, Mr. Fezziwig’s place,"

much of it punctuated with the comings and goings of ghosts. His


and descriptions are punctuated with a laugh, as he realizes anew

the enormity of the production. "That’s a lot. That’s a


Lee says working with director Michael Unger has proved a good fit.

"He comes to the show with a lot of history and knows it really

well. There are things that I knew he would not give up because they

worked in the past production." Lee is pleased that both Unger

and David Thompson, the adapter of this latest version, endorsed his

darker conception. He presented four different models for the set

design, and the trio made the choice together.

"A setting doesn’t necessarily come from someone having one great

vision," says Lee, "but needs to evolve and be


Whether to go for an expressionistic or a realistic edge is a choice

that Lee says depends on how the designer reacts to a play. In this

case, "there are a lot of strange angles that call for a tinge

of expressionism. Although, in this story, you are never quite sure

whether we are dealing with reality or a figment of the imagination,

there is definitely the need for the supernatural."

"Although my color palette for the show is pretty much black and

white — like a photograph — my instinct is for the less


the less cumbersome. But given the requirements of so many scenes,

with lots of magic, it was important to have a more fully realized


It was Eugene Lee’s (no relation) setting for


Todd," that Lee says gave him his inspiration for the images of

London’s 19th century financial district that he is using to frame

his "Christmas Carol." Ming Cho Lee is also famous for


the artistic use of pipe scaffolding in such shows as "The Two

Gentlemen of Verona" on Broadway and "Peer Gynt" for the

New York Shakespeare Festival. "I look at other designers’ work

that I admire and say how can I use it. I’m a shameless stealer,"

he admits. Other working designers whom he admires include Richard

Hudson of "The Lion King" and Bob Crowley of


The new McCarter production brings together a host of creative talent.

Costume design is by Jess Goldstein, Lee’s former student at Yale

who now teaches costume design there. You could call this a family

affair with Stephen Strawbridge, also a former student and now


with Lee of the design department at Yale, doing the lighting design.

The biggest challenge for Lee in "A Christmas Carol" was


a production that he sees as "too big."

"There must be a simpler more streamlined way to do it, but I

have not discovered it," says Lee, admittedly perplexed by whether

the show should be principally magic-driven or more reflective of

the times. Voicing his strong feelings about all those "ye olde

shoppey" productions there are out there that drive him crazy,"

he admits, "I’ll only stop worrying about it after I see it on

the stage."

The new production features Broadway veteran John Christopher Jones

as Ebenezer Scrooge, leading the cast that includes Robert Ari, as

Mr. Fezziwig; Kim Brockington, as The Ghost of Christmas Present;

Caren Browning, as Mrs. Cratchit; Angel Desai, as Fan; Mark Niebuhr,

as Jacob Marley; Judy Reyes, as Lily and Belle; Simon Brooking, as

Bob Cratchit; Jayne Houdyshell, as Mrs. Fezziwig; Mikel Sarah Lambert,

as Mrs. Dilber; James Ludwig, as Fred; and Sean McNall, as Young


The highlight of every McCarter production of "A Christmas


are the 12 area children who fill the stage in a variety of roles.

When I ask Lee why we don’t see more of his work on Broadway, his

answer is humorously blunt: "If producers don’t call you, you

don’t do the work." Lee is also candid. "For whatever reason,

I do my least good work on Broadway. Perhaps it is because I am not

fond of working under that kind of pressure."

"You can do terrific work in Minneapolis, Louisville, Los Angeles,

and Washington, yet on Broadway, you end up putting all your effort

into something that can close on opening night."

"That is not why I got into the business," says Lee, who is

somewhat astonished how many of his opera designs go on and on, like

those for "Boris Godunov," which the New York City Opera has

been using for the past 26 years.

"As I grow older I have fewer preconceptions about theater


I’m a little exhausted. I’d like to stop designing for about a year.

But you know, if someone calls me to do a Broadway show, I think I’d

do it."

— Simon Saltzman

A Christmas Carol, McCarter Theater, 91 University

Place, 609-258-2787. The new production of the Dickens’ classic runs

to December 24. $28 to $40.

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