Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
God Bless Us Everyone: Looking at “A Christmas Carol” on two different stages
There was quite a while when I had simply had enough of staged versions of “A Christmas Carol.” The smaller theater attempts tended to fall into one of two categories: the bare bones of the tale itself used as a catalyst for street scenes heavy on small children and the singing of multitudinous Christmas carols, or a star turn for one actor determined to squeeze as much stage time out of Ebenezer Scrooge as possible, whether or not that was of benefit to the story. In either case, I felt I’d been there, and done that.
This year I decided to stick a toe back into the sea of productions, by visiting two of them. The first was at the Sierra Madre Playhouse, a small, community theater beginning to grow in polish. The second was A Noise Within, the professional classical company newly moved to their own theater in Pasadena after a long and checkered relationship with Glendale. What I hoped was that their versions of the Dickens classic would have a greater connection to the story than to some of what I’d found in theaters in years past.
Now, understand that I have a deep and abiding love for the original story. Dickens was remarkable in his details, creating a world of struggle and heartbreak from which his moral tale rises, and delivering a significant undercurrent of creepiness to keep the thing edgy. Frustratingly, adaptations for the stage at Christmas time, when the object is to scoop young and old into the theater to be warmed once again by Tiny Tim’s “God bless us, every one,” tend to lean toward the warm rather than the harsh or the creepy. Much of what Dickens intended to say gets lost or at least diluted. So, what I look for is a production where that does not happen – at least, not much.
There is good news and bad news from my foray with dueling Scrooges.
At SMP, despite a truly annoying (and often anachronistic) sound track which plays behind – and sometimes drowns out – the action, and the aforementioned carol singing, the spirit of the story stays central. Here director Christina Harris has written her own adaptation. It proves better than many of those available for production by small companies. James B. Harnagel makes a respectable Scrooge. Karl Maschek and Brad Satterwhite give character to Bob Cratchit and Scrooge’s nephew Fred.
Indeed, some of the moments stand out, especially Sarah Watson’s turn as the Ghost of Christmas Past, aided by Liz Peterson’s costuming. Though the regrettable tendency to have a girl play Tiny Tim with her hair tucked up in a hat still prevails, Kiara Lisette Gamboa gives it her all. More importantly, the scenes close to the end, with Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (Matthew Kerchner) have the classic hooded figure which has come to embody the presentiment of doom.
At ANW, the text is honored most greatly, with a modern-dress narrator (Robertson Dean) walking in and out of the minimalist set to deliver much of his description from the original story itself. Co-director Geoff Elliott, as the famed curmudgeon, actually manages to make Scrooge’s transformation believable, in part by making it gradual rather than sudden. Mitchell Edmonds gives Marley’s ghost a definite, though not completely Dickensian, foreboding, and the entire staging of that haunting works particularly well.
The setting, increasingly part fairyland and part circus, lends itself to some of the brutality of Dickens’ world, and makes for interestingly non-typical Christmas ghosts, though it also provides some head-scratching moments. Still, Deborah Strang’s Rackham-like Ghost of Christmas Past works, as did the oddly interpreted, but still satisfying Ghost of Christmas Present (Alan Blumenfeld). Damaso J. Rodriguez – yes, a boy – makes a charming, slightly haunting Tiny Tim, Stephen Rockwell a solidly humble Bob Cratchit, and Rafael Goldstein a particularly likable Fred.
Yet, all this falls away toward the end as the story diverts from the cloaked, dark Ghost of Christmas Future in favor of what can only be described as an Ent. Lumbering and tree-like instead of dark and otherworldly, Kevin Rico Angulo’s costume demands he gesture with long twigs – physically inarticulate. It proves such an odd choice it becomes a distraction from the rest of the play.
Still, in each of these versions, the padding is minimal and the timing sharp. It may seem like comparing an apple and an orange to look at a small, lightly funded company and place it up against a comparatively well-heeled professional group, but both have their joys. Both also avoided the largest traps: hyper-sentimentality, triviality or the side-tracking of the story altogether. To be sure, the original is so good that Patrick Stewart made it all the way to Broadway just standing in front of an audience and reading the thing. If it doesn’t get lost or made pale, then this becomes something worth seeing as the holiday’s approach.
What: “A Christmas Carol” When: Through December 23, 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd in Sierra Madre How Much: $25 adults, $22 students, $15 children 12 and under Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org
What: “A Christmas Carol When: Through December 23, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday evenings, 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday matinees Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: $40 – $52 Info: (626) 356-3100 or http://www.ANoiseWithin.org