Every December a curious sort of magic appears at McCarter Theater: its adaptation of “A Christmas Carol.”
You know the story. English miser Ebenezer Scrooge is visited on Christmas Eve by spirits in a last-ditch effort to save his soul and change his life for the better.
But the McCarter experience is a presentation unlike any other.
As you settle into the plush vermilion seats and the lights go down, there’s an announcement that you’re in for something special — the booming score kicks up as a giant fir tree is illuminated, center stage. When it begins to snow right there in front of you that lump in your throat becomes an anticipatory sign of the joy to come.
There’s nothing else you can call it, really, but magic, and this particular production of “A Christmas Carol,” now in its 13th year at McCarter, is filled to the brim with sleights-of-hand, flying spirits, snowfalls, and beautiful and mysterious moments of spectacle.
Yet with those magical moments comes a well-oiled machine of a team of theatrical professionals who work tirelessly behind the scenes in the weeks leading up to opening night.
The production — which employs 40 actors (including children from throughout the greater Princeton area), 21 technicians, and four stage managers — is directed by Michael Unger, who has helmed this production since its inception 13 years ago. He also served as assistant director on a previous adaptation of the show at McCarter.
“This ‘A Christmas Carol’ has never been the same two years in a row,” said Unger. “It is a constantly evolving organism. This is because of my desire, and McCarter’s, to keep discovering new things that the piece can offer audiences year after year.”
This constant state of evolution and rediscovery is made possible by a production team that reunites, year after year.
Wardrobe manager Lindsay Rae Barnes is currently in her 10th year on the production. “I think one of my favorite parts is all the actors who come back to the show multiple years, even the kids,” said Barnes. “There was one boy who started the same year I did, and I watched him grow up from Tiny Tim to being a responsible, helpful young man. After a decade of being in a big group of like minded technicians and actors and staff all getting through the holidays together, this process defines the holiday season for me now.”
Like Barnes, many members of the team have spent numerous years learning the ins-and-outs of the production, which allows for further growth and variation as Unger explores new elements of the script.
“I am constantly looking for new magic that we can add to the show,” said Unger. “One year, a small gesture our Scrooge made inspired me to ponder if there might be a way to make his cane fly up through the air and descend, returning to its cane stand from whence it came. I presented a few ideas to the prop department, they added their ‘special sauce’ and we now have one of my favorite effects in the show.”
That same affection for the show — and its audiences — is prevalent throughout the team, many of whom work year-round for McCarter and live in the area.
“My favorite part of ‘A Christmas Carol’ is getting to watch the faces of the audience members, especially little children seeing the show for the first time,” said Bill Kirby, a Princeton resident and the production’s sound engineer and assistant sound designer. Responsible for everything from the cell phone announcement to the proper balance of actors’ voices, Kirby runs sound from a board at the back of the orchestra section of the audience. “I’m in the unique position of being the only crew member in the house, and I really get a kick out of interacting with people coming to see the show.”
Master electrician and associate lighting designer Paul Kilsdonk is tasked with the annual recreation of the original lighting design by Stephen Strawbridge. The Lambertville-based Kilsdonk is responsible for maintaining and improving lighting technology in keeping with industry standards, and collaborating with Unger to produce the director’s changes and improvements.
Several of the most gasp-worthy effects of each performance involve flying. “A Christmas Carol” utilizes flight in a crucial scene in which Scrooge is kept off balance via adventurous swoops and tumbles that would make Peter Pan envious.
Meredith Scheibner of Deptford has spent seven years working on “A Christmas Carol,” three controlling the flying elements. Even as a seasoned veteran, she is still affected by the magic. “Last year during a rehearsal we were flying Scrooge around the stage to get back into the swing of things and there was this moment when I looked up to see his eyes were closed and he was just enjoying himself. He was at such peace, and I got to see it. I am not sure I had ever witnessed another’s sheer contentment like that, but I did in that moment and it was just awesome,” said Scheibner.
With the return to this production year after year comes a sense of family and tradition, in both the metaphorical and literal sense. “The themes of this show have always been a wonderful lesson for any family to witness, and my children are no exception,” said Unger. “It has also provided many wonderful, lifelong friendships throughout the years for all of us.”
Unger himself — the Chicago-born son of an engineering firm executive and a special education teacher — understands the importance of this coming together, especially as a freelance director who often needs to travel from his New York City-based family. That includes his 11-year-old twins, Phoebe and Nathaniel, who have been attending the McCarter show all their lives.
In his return to McCarter to create this play in celebration of the holiday season, Unger is also careful to remember Charles Dickens’ original intent and specific message of the story. During the first rehearsal with the child actors of the production, Unger presents historical accounts of child labor during the period of the play.
This touchstone serves as a reminder of the transformative purpose of “A Christmas Carol,” and the spirit of giving. “I take great pride when the young ensemble decides to donate money, originally raised for a pizza party, to charities that fight child labor abuses around the world. We must never forget those less fortunate than us — those Tiny Tims of the world.”
There is magic and more in this Christmas Carol.
A Christmas Carol, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Thursdays through Sundays until Friday, December 28 (with presentations also on Wednesdays, December 19 and 26). Tickets are $20-$75.
For more information: visit www.mccarter.org, or call 609-258-2787.