For 25 years McCarter Theater has been presenting David Thompson’s adaptation of the famous Charles Dickens story, “A Christmas Carol.” So what’s new? Just about everything. And that everything is commendably gratifying.
It’s not that this traditional holiday show was wearing out its welcome, but like all familiar classics, they occasionally need to be revitalized, re-envisioned, and reconceived for the tastes and temperaments of a changing audience. Wait, before you say “Bah, humbug!”
This new production, under the direction of Adam Immerwahr, does not preclude our welcoming back that grumpy old geezer Ebenezer Scrooge with the same miserly persona who dutifully and respectfully remains a constant. And he gets his due in a terrific performance by Greg Wood, who nails it as the story’s number one denier and decrier of the Christmas spirit. This is not an easy role to take on, but Wood, making his McCarter debut, makes Scrooge’s transformation from terrifying to tenderhearted as honest and real a makeover as one could ask.
There are some surprises in store for those who have kept up the annual trek to McCarter. The casting is especially adventurous and notable — Dickens’ now almost archetypal characters are seen as a racial and cultural mix. Whether we see director Immerwahr’s perspective as a political metaphor for our times or as a social message of diversity, the actors and their acting are uniformly excellent. Augmenting the large cast is a talented ensemble of community members of all ages.
For openers, there is a joyful sing-a-long to get the audience in the spirit with a carol that dates back to the Middle Ages — supertitles are provided. The impressive scenic design by Daniel Ostling is almost overpoweringly contrived with moving, gliding, ascending, and descending pieces that we are occasionally more in awe of than with those who do the navigating through it. But it’s all in fun. With all that scenery shifting, Ostling’s backdrop of a fog enshrouded mid-19th century London keeps the faith nicely, even if there is precious little evidence of the abject squalor that Dickens noted. Some of that can be seen in some of the poverty-row attire designed by Linda Cho, who also dresses up the well-to-do in colorful period-perfect finery.
Of course, we know where we are going with Scrooge as he disdainfully ridicules those asking for charity and those who want to personally extend good will to him, like his affable nephew, Fred (JD Taylor), who will not let his uncle’s bitterness get him down. As we know, Scrooge is in for it. We’re talking about him having a change of heart, if not a heart attack, when strange things start happening to him while alone in his gloomy home. Hardly gloomy and rather a breath of fresh air comes via the delightful performance by Sue Jin Song as his befuddled housekeeper Mrs. Dilber.
But Scrooge is about to learn in a most frightening way the true meaning of Christmas from the three ghosts who soon follow in succession. The nightmarish visit to him in his bedroom by his deceased business partner, Jacob Marley (Frank X), should give you a start. It did to me thanks in part to the eerie sounds created by designer Darron L.West.
There is the stunning and flickering atmospheric lighting by designer Lap Chi Chu to make the haunting by the ghosts on Christmas Eve shiver-worthy.
The Ghost of Christmas Past (Ivy Cordle) makes a stunning appearance by levitating out of a gust of smoke and then floating about the room — and this is where we applaud special effects designer Jeremy Chernick. I don’t want to spoil all the fun surprise that comes with the appearance of the Ghost of Christmas Past (Elisha Lawson), who looks like a glittering Dresden doll, but I will say that if you’ve never seen a giggling Christmas tree, you’ll see one with the Ghost of Christmas Present (a gregarious Mimi Francis).
Forcibly made to revisit his life through childhood memories, a younger man’s follies, and his romantic regrets, Scrooge begins to see how he went astray — by losing the beautiful love of his life, Belle (Jamila Sabares-Klemm), because of his obsession with making money. The next scene is at the home of young Scrooge’s boss, Mr. Fezziwig (Lance Roberts), and his flighty red-haired wife (Anne L. Nathan) where the well-to-do are having a party. Here the lively dances choreographed by Lorin Latarro may look a little like they belong in another show, but it’s a dream and his interpretation and that’s okay. Composer Michael Friedman (great score for “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson”) has contributed some pleasing underscoring to suit the play’s many moods.
The healing of Scrooge’s heart and soul is most evident in his relationship with his employee Bob Cratchit (Warner Miller) and the despairingly poor but joyous Cratchit family — one in which Mrs. Cratchit (Jessica Bedford) is barely able to keep enough food on the table to keep their crippled son Tiny Tim (Liam McKernan) alive. This tender final scene in which Scrooge is literally re-born and the spirit of Christmas is resurrected is reason enough for all of us to feel motivated by our sense of community in a needy world.
A Christmas Carol, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Through December 31. $26 to $77. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.