If you don’t respond with a moist eye and a swelling heart to “A Christmas Carol,” Charles Dickens’ classic tale of a miser’s spiritual redemption, I wouldn’t go so far as to call you a Scrooge, but perhaps you might consider removing Christmas itself from your holiday calendar. The classic tale has been much-filmed and much-dramatized over the years — it is probably more seen than read these days — but no matter its ingrained-from-childhood familiarity, it remains a reliable tugger of heartstrings.
The affecting, artfully staged new production on Broadway at the Lyceum Theatre, directed in brisk, simple strokes by Matthew Warchus and originally seen at London’s Old Vic, strips away much of the gothic Dickensian atmosphere that other versions emphasize, while adding a few theatrical flourishes in keeping with today’s emphasis on immersive theater. With a cast led by Campbell Scott as the soulless money-lender Ebenezer Scrooge, it emphasizes the essential contours of the irresistible story, allowing the actors to provide much of the emotional coloring, and, with few new twists, leaving the tale to cast its familiar spell.
And so, yes, when Tiny Tim, played by the adorable actor Jai Ram Srinivasan (alternating with Sebastian Ortiz), merrily meets the reformed Scrooge in the final moments, and says the immortal line, “God bless us, every one,” my sniffly cold suddenly got snifflier. Mission accomplished.
Scott, with angry-looking gray puffs of hair adorning head and face, has some nerve taking on the central role — and I mean that in a good way. His father, the great actor George C. Scott, played the role in an excellent television movie version from 1984. And the part has been played by esteemed actors too numerous to mention. (A favorite of mine was the solo stage version of Patrick Stewart, who also starred in a 1999 movie version.)
Scott’s Scrooge is not the outsized, ogre-like figure of some interpretations. In keeping with an adaptation by Jack Thorne (“Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”) that emphasizes the simple, universal humanity of the story, Scott’s Scrooge is a miser but not so much a monster. His “Bah, humbugs” are kept to a minimum, and his dismissal of charity-seekers and insistence that his assistant, Bob Cratchit (a moving, sympathetic Dashiell Eaves), perform onerous duties on Christmas Eve are delivered with a scowl more than a snarl.
The sets, by Rob Howell, are minimal. Dozens of lanterns hang above the stage and the audience, shedding golden light on a mostly dark stage, and props are few: Scrooge’s desk is made up of a pile of cash boxes that are stowed back in the wooden, cruciform stage, leaving it generally bare. Doors are suggested only by metal frames that rise and fall from the stage. Those doorless doorways make the dramatic entrance of the ghost of Jacob Marley (Chris Hoch) less chilling than it could be, I must admit, and despite Marley’s long trail of chains, this scene lacked some of the goose-pimply terrors that I recall from other versions.
But as the story unfolds, with Scrooge being visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past (Andrea Martin) and the Ghost of Christmas Present (LaChanze, deploying a West Indian accent), the staging moves nimbly through the familiar visions with a nice alacrity. Martin, one of our great stage comics, here is a warm, almost maternal figure, drawing Scrooge back to his unhappy youth raised by a cold, increasingly poor and indebted father, thereby gently emphasizing that misers are made, not born.
LaChanze takes a dry, mildly mocking approach as she tutors Scrooge in the pleasures his personal greed cut him off from, such as the happy marriage of his lost love, Belle (Sarah Hunt) — and shows him the suffering of Tiny Tim and the terror of his worried parents in a scene new to this version.
And in an inventive divergence from most versions, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come has been eliminated, with the character’s duties taken over by Scrooge’s deceased sister, Little Fan (a becomingly soft-hearted Rachel Prather). She escorts Scrooge to his own funeral, here less grimly depicted than in some versions, with Scrooge being disarmed and touched by the warm tributes to him given by both Bob and his nephew, Fred, played with amusing forbearance by Brandon Gill. Scrooge’s tender reunion with Belle is also a touching new addition. (The friend I took did, however, lament the absence of a piteous scene in many versions of the story and the Dickens original: Scrooge’s encounter with the waif-like children symbolizing Ignorance and Want.)
While it fundamentally relies on the story and the actors to excavate the tale’s rich fund of sentiment, the staging does add a few theatrical flourishes. The performers wander the aisles dispensing treats as the audience enters (even some of the principal players: I spotted both Martin and LaChanze). Gently rendered arrangements of traditional Christmas carols, by Christopher Nightingale, appear as bookends of the show (the handbells are a lovely touch), but are also woven throughout, never obtrusive but subliminally plumping up the nostalgic atmosphere.
Also adding to the wintry London atmosphere was a falling of the most realistic theatrical snow I’ve ever had to shake from my clothes: not bits of white confetti but dollops of frozen moisture that descend with such magical grace that when the second snowfall occurred, two children seated in an area the snow didn’t reach stole forward down the aisle to experience it for themselves. (Sniffle, sniffle.) And when Scrooge awakens on Christmas day a changed man, he insists, in another effective twist, on transporting the feast that Fred’s family has cooked (and which he had initially shunned) to the Cratchits’ own home, calling on the audience to help in the task.
Dickens’ tale has never been out of fashion, but certainly its message — that a life lived in pursuit of maximum wealth and minimal care for one’s fellow man is a hollow and destructive one — is as painfully pertinent today as it has ever been. Thorne’s version seems to subtly emphasizes this at various points, with, for instance, the Ghost of Christmas Present pointedly telling Scrooge, “You are simply a money lender. You have spurned all responsibility for the wider world and simply tried to reap profit from it.”
Perhaps it’s time to add a subtitle to Dickens’ immortal tale. Let’s call it “A Christmas Carol: A Fable of the Perils of Income Inequality.”
“A Christmas Carol” opened at the Lyceum Theatre on Wed., Nov. 20, 2019.
Creative: Directed by Matthew Warchus; Adapted by Jack Thorne; Music arranged by Christopher Nightingale; Scenic Design by Rob Howell; Costume Design by Rob Howell; Lighting Design by Hugh Vanstone; Sound Design by Simon Baker.
Producers: Tom Smedes, Heather Shields, Nathan Gehan, Jamison Scott, Catherine Schreiber, Peter Stern, Cornice Productions, Xin Wen, Jack Lane, InStone Productions,Nancy Gibbs/Joseph Longthorne, Mark Lonow & Joanne Astrow, Chase Thomas/Yael Silver,J. Scott & Sylvia G. Bechtel, Walport Productions, Propaganda Productions/42nd.club, HKL Productions/Louise H. Beard & Seriff Productions, Mark Lippman, Fiona Howe Rudin/Sammy Lopez, Brian Mutert & Derek Perrigo/Gary & Reenie Heath and The Old Vic Theatre.
Cast: Campbell Scott, LaChanze, Andrea Martin, Erica Dorfler, Dashiell Eaves, Hannah Elless, Brandon Gill, Evan Harrington, Chris Hoch, Sarah Hunt, Matthew LaBanca, Alex Nee, Sebastian Ortiz, Dan Piering, Rachel Prather and Jai Ram Srinivasan.