So who needs another production of “A Christmas Carol?” With the traditional, perennial, and spectacular version of Charles Dickens’s beloved story being performed at the McCarter Theater, why would you consider venturing to the Shakespeare Theater in Madison to see yet another? One thing is certain: it is definitely unlike any other version you have seen before. It is as astonishingly imaginative as it is effectively pure with the spirit of Dickens. Not to take away from the pleasures derived from the other fine productions around us, but this one takes the yuletide cake for its clever resolve to resonate with only the choicest of Dickens’ own words.
One might be inclined to call it a minimalist spectacular or Dickens lite. But to see Bonnie J. Monte’s inventive and refreshed staging is to renew your acquaintance with the familiar story. This production, the East Coast premiere, is the one adapted by British playwright Neil Bartlett for the Lyric Theater, Hammersmith. It turns out to be a very special, uniquely conceived and performed holiday treat for everyone.
More than 50 of Dickens’ beloved characters are portrayed by a cast of nine, who do more than don a different hat or costume or affect a wry personality change on the spot. For starters, all the sound effects are provided by the actors and prove charming accessories to the story, as does the a cappella singing of Christmas carols. For example, six concerted actors appear whenever the chiming of the clock is needed and provide not only the image of a swinging pendulum, as they sway in unison, but also the resounding bongs as well: quarter hour, half past, quarter to, and the hour itself.
The onomatopoeic beauty of Dickens’ text is distilled in humorous ways. The three clerks, including Bob Cratchit, who sit in the drafty cold offices of Scrooge and Marley, convey the tediousness of their work with their concerted voices with “scratch, scratch, scratch,” as fountain pens are put to their task. An actor will pop out of nowhere to provide the ping of Scrooge’s nephew Fred’s pocket watch. Adaptor Bartlett’s brilliant notion to capture the spirit of Dickens’ text by using only the most essential words such as “gruel, thin” and “time, time, money, money,” is matched by fine performances that offer all the prescribed chills, warmth, comedy, and drama.
What is particularly rewarding, including their humorously deployed inclination to play pranks on each other, is the excellence and integrity of all the acting. Sherman Howard is terrific as the self-centered, embittered, and mean skinflint, Ebenezer Scrooge. And while it is always a treat to watch the transformation of a despicable Scrooge into a decent and loving member of the community, it is in the early scenes as Scrooge abuses a beggar on the street and bellows at his nephew and the clerks that Howard establishes the presence and personality of a man whose bitterness is very deeply rooted.
There is no lack of eerie and scary doings, as Scrooge is haunted by Jacob Marley’s fearsome ghost, who “wears the chains I forged in life;” the silvered from head to toe Ghost of Christmas Past, who takes Scrooge back to his childhood; and the Ghost of Christmas Present who appears in a red robe and glittering adornments and says, “Christmas is coming,” then literally whisking Scrooge away in a flash through the open door of his wardrobe.
Wondrous dreamscapes include Bob Cratchit’s family getting swept up in a violent wind and Scrooge appearing as if he is flying through a starry sky.
Production values are superior as James Wolk’s settings move fluidly — like opening a pop-up story book — from a London street, to Scrooge’s office, his dark and depressing bedroom, and the Cratchit’s loving home. Karen Kedger’s costumes handsomely reflect Victorian styles and they all get the full value of Matthew E. Adelson’s magical lighting. I dare you not to come away wanting more of Dickens’ ode to Christmas, especially after Mrs. Cratchit brings to the table the cooked goose, the apple sauce sweetened potatoes with sage and onions, and pudding flambe, and Tiny Tim, as played by Seamus Mulchay (whom we have already seen playing a rich boy, a singing boy, young Scrooge, a fiddler, and Old Joe), delivers his joyful “God bless us, everyone.”
“A Christmas Carol,” through Monday, December 31, Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey at the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theater, Madison. $28 to $52. www.ShakespeareNJ.org or 973-408-5600.