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This review by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the December 20,

2000 edition of

U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Review: `A Christmas Carol’

McCarter Theater’s first new production in nine years

of "A Christmas Carol" can hardly be called revisionist. Yet

in the artistic hands of director Michael Unger and set designer Ming

Cho Lee it is a more formidably realized vision of Charles Dickens’

classic story and of Victorian London than we’ve seen before.

Without sacrificing the requisite uplifting, humorous, and inspiring

elements of the favorite holiday tale, which is now darker, mustier,

and more surreal, we are now effectively transported to a very real

place and time in history. And whatever sprucing up David Thompson

has done to his very literate adaptation, with well-placed musical

moments, it is tailored to bring more respectful consideration to

the Dickens original.

The impressive scene, even as we enter the theater, affords us a look

at the tall, gray sturdy-looking office buildings that make up

London’s

financial district in 1843. The previous production’s opening moments

when a father reads a bedtime story to his child in the present day

has been removed in favor of a more ominous stage setting. And these

buildings’ brooding shapes, leaning nightmarishly over the young and

old, rich and the poor, shoppers and strollers, peddlers and bankers,

bustling about preparing for Christmas day, are certainly a mere

warning

of the scary images yet to come.

And don’t expect to see a typically cross and crusty "Humbug!"

shouting Scrooge. As John Christopher Jones interprets the role,

there’s

a wry and vulnerable spirit very much in evidence in his immensely

gratifying interpretation. Despite the old cheapskate’s grousing and

grumbling, we get subtle glimpses of the man Scrooge might have been,

even before he is accosted in his dreams by the punishing spirits

of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. In Jones’s performance, there

isn’t a trace of caricature, but a richly developed, complex

character.

It is Scrooge’s painful night-long transition from selfishness to

kindness, his ultimate learning of what it means to be considerate

and caring of the needs of others, that is the arc of the story. But

just as we wait for Scrooge’s change of heart, it is our concern for

the welfare and future of the other poignant and needy characters

that keeps us anxious with anticipation. And just as I found all these

matters dramatically engaging, the show was equally accessible and

compelling for my five and six-year-old guests, Parker and Shelby,

who came along to the show.

As the massive settings — the counting house, Scrooge’s bedroom,

Bob Cratchet’s house, Mr. Fezziwig’s place — glide silently on

their diagonal path to center stage, the lives of those who have been

affected by Scrooge, both past and present, are brought into vibrant

relief. Simon Brooking is a model of repressed servitude as Bob

Cratchit,

Scrooge’s underpaid clerk who hides his pain because he cannot afford

proper medical attention for his son Tiny Tim (Josh Rose). Caren

Browning

is warm and dutifully supportive as Mrs. Cratchit. And Devon Ershow,

Clare Joyce, and Abby Mycek are charming and funny as the Cratchit

children, who only think they see a ghost when Scrooge comes to visit

their home.

Robert Ari and Jayne Houdyshell are bright plump visions of

life-affirming

joy as the Fezziwigs, in their orange-accented attire, as is their

comically vivacious daughter, as played by Ellie Dvorkin. Mark Niebuhr

earns our sympathy as the troubled yet still fearsome ghost of Jacob

Marley. He’s as eternally tormented by his own failure in life as

he is anguished by what he sees as his former partner’s inevitable

destiny. And Mikel Sarah Lambert, as Scrooge’s put-upon housekeeper,

get a good scream when Scrooge mistakes her for a ghost in his

bedroom.

The large cast, often doubling roles, and which also includes 12 area

children, will leave no doubt in your mind that the ghostly comings

and goings are being taken very seriously.

The green-and-red gowned Ghost of Christmas Present, as played by

an empowering Kim Brockington, is the personification of a decorated

Christmas tree. Although she looks to be always on the verge of

breaking

out into soul-satisfying song, her otherwise glittering performance

is suffused with a street-wise sparkle. There is more than a little

sass behind her magic wand that lifts the frightened, wide-eyed

Scrooge

off the ground and sends him soaring into the air.

Just as Jess Goldstein’s richly detailed costumes are shown off best

in the dazzling party scenes, Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting makes

its most stunning statements in the near darkness when chains and

terrors go bump in the night, particularly with the arrival of the

gigantic cloaked Ghost of Christmas Future.

Director Michael Unger and designer Ming Cho Lee have re-addressed

"A Christmas Carol" and re-affirmed its place as the perfect

holiday show. My only quibble is that big fat goose that Scrooge has

delivered to the Cratchits looks brown and fully cooked. Could it

be that London butchers provided such fancy service back then? I doubt

it. Merry Christmas and bon appetit!

— Simon Saltzman

A Christmas Carol, McCarter Theater, 91 University

Place, 609-258-2787. To December 24. $28 to $40. www.mccarter.org


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