Reviewed by Shelley A. Sackett
Trinity Repertory Company’s 2019 musical version of A Christmas Carol starts out promisingly. Produced in the Elizabeth and Malcolm Chace Theater, Director Kate Bergstrom makes use of that venue’s intimate theater-in-the-round configuration by staging pockets of singing performers above every seat section. The pageantry of a live orchestra, quality-voiced actors in Dickensian-era costumes, and an excellent sound system is enough to enrapture a toe-tapping audience. Unfortunately, uneven performances and an over-reliance on gimmicky, ostentatious staging trickery will soon burst that magical bubble.
The story is familiar to most. It’s Christmas Eve in early 19th century London. Ebenezer Scrooge, a miserly, miserable businessman, essentially holds his lone clerk, Bob Cratchit, hostage. The two are probably the only people not celebrating in all of London. Outside their barely heated office, children dance and carolers serenade. When Scrooge’s niece, Frederika, enters his office to invite him to Christmas dinner with her family, Scrooge turns her down without even a “Merry Christmas.”
“You keep Christmas in your own way and let me keep it in mine,” Scrooge bellows. On his way home, the ghost of his dead partner, Jacob Marley, appears amidst billows of smoke and yards of clanging chains. Clearly, Marley’s ghost is suffering a doomed eternity. He warns Scrooge that three spirits will visit him on this night and that if Scrooge wants to avoid Marley’s fate, he should listen to them and heed their advice.
Scrooge is convinced Marley is a figment of his imagination until the Ghost of Christmas Past arrives. Scrooge as a youth is sad and solitary and when as a young adult, he loses his fiancée Belle because he cares more about money than her, we feel Scrooge’s present-day pain as he rehears her say, “May your money comfort you as I would have.”
Christmas Present leads Scrooge to Bob Cratchit’s tiny house, where he learns Bob’s young crippled son, Tiny Tim, will die unless his future changes. A visit to Frederika’s family celebration reveals that their favorite after-dinner game is ridiculing none other than their dear old Uncle Scrooge. It is the future Scrooge fears most, and after witnessing what lies ahead, he vows to absorb the lessons the spirits have shown him and change while he still has time. When he wakes up the next day, he immediately declares, “I will not be the man I was. I will make amends.”
There are some terrific performances by Trinity Rep Resident Acting Company members Timothy Crowe (Schoolmaster and Joe the Tavern Proprietor) and Rachael Warren (Fezziwig and The Ghost of Christmas Present). Their acting would stand out in a vacuum, but by comparison to Jude Sandy (Ebenezer Scrooge) and Ricardy Fabre (Bob Cratchit), it is a palpable and welcome relief. Sandy is tragically miscast in a part that has him in nearly every scene of a two-plus hour show. He plays Scrooge two ways: as loud, flat and belligerent (most of Act I); and, in reaction to the spirits, as loud, flat and trembling. His voice seems incapable of nuance.
Fabre is neither offensive nor annoying; he is simply bland in a role that should evoke pathos and empathy. Both could benefit from a few workshops with their two veteran colleagues.
On the bright side, Taavon Gamble’s choreography (especially the pewter mug-slamming number) and Michael Rice’s musical direction of orchestra and singers (the accordion playing in Christmas Present is delightful) give the musical a joyful lift in a production burdened by darkness. The staging tricks, such as Marley and his motley crew emerging from their hell hole and the flying bed of Christmas Past, feel like eye candy trying to distract the audience from noticing the overwhelmingly second-rate feel to the production.
In 1966, Trinity Repertory received substantial funds from the newly founded National Endowment for the Arts to launch its landmark Project Discovery program, which allowed high school students from all over the state to attend professional live theater for free. I was a 9th grade Classical High School freshman, and Adrian Hall’s masterful use of scaffolding and theater-in-the-round blew my 14-year-old mind. It was a peek through a keyhole to a world of pure wonder. Alas, that fairy dust was nowhere to be found last Wednesday night, spectacular theatrics notwithstanding.
A Christmas Carol has been a Trinity Rep staple for over 40 years, and every year returning audiences look forward to experiencing a new spin on a well-known tale. Alas, the overwhelming effect of this 2019 version was a nostalgic longing for the ghost of Christmases Past when the likes of the tremendously talented Timothy Crowe brought Scrooge to life in ways both credible and enchanting. Let’s hope that A Christmas Carol 2020 will be longer on substance and shorter on showmanship. For tickets and information, go to: https://www.trinityrep.com/
‘A Christmas Carol’ – by Charles Dickens. Original Music by Richard Cumming; Directed by Kate Bergstrom; Music Direction by Michael Rice; Choreography by Taavon Gamble; Set Design by Patrick Lynch; Costume Design by Olivera Gajic; Lighting Design by Barbara Samuels; Sound Design by Broken Chord. Presented by Trinity Repertory Company, 201 Washington St., Providence through December 29.