Wednesday, December 14, 2016

ASF: "A Christmas Carol"

Each time director Geoffrey Sherman stages his adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic A Christmas Carol at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, he tweaks the script a bit, adding or removing portions of the plot, elaborating characters and their relationships, while remaining true to the spirit of the original source. So, while the story of Ebenezer Scrooge's reclamation from miserly and mean-spirited to generous and gregarious holds no real surprises, there is always something in Sherman's bag of tricks to  grab the attention of repeat audience members.

There is still magic in the air -- both actual magic tricks and terrific special effects,  and the magic of ghosts who teach Scrooge the value of charity and the true meaning of Christmas -- on Paul Wonsek's idyllic Victorian set and with Elizabeth Novak's glorious costumes; and Sherman moves the action quickly to punctuate the key moments in Scrooge's magical night with the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Yet-to-Come.

Paul Hebron assumes the role of Dickens, an amateur magician and narrator of this rendition of Christmas Carol, who also takes on the roles of good-hearted Fezziwig, Scrooge's one-time employer, and Old Joe, a dealer in stolen or ill-gotten goods and properties. -- Mr. Hebron makes each one a distinct and memorable creation, and when he shares a scene with Rodney Clark's Scrooge, there's a bit more magic in watching two artists at their best.

Attention is focussed on Scrooge for virtually the whole two-plus hours playing time. From the moment we first see him -- so dismissive of Christmas and so rude to everyone (street urchins and businessmen, his long-suffering clerk Bob Cratchit [Billy Sharpe] and his nephew Fred [Jackson Thompson], are all treated alike) -- Mr. Clark commands the stage. Until, that is, he meets the first Ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley [Brik Berkes] who astounds him and sends him on a journey that restores him to the brotherhood of humankind. Mr. Berkes is a frightening specter whose pain in his condition of bridging the worlds between life and death has never been better realized.

A luminous Ghost of Christmas Past [Ann Flanigan] takes the reluctant Scrooge into his own past where he is shown his former self as a boy and youth, his delight in Fezziwig's generosity [Mr. Hebron and Diana Van Fossen as Mrs. Fezziwig are a delight in their dancing at Christmas], his first love Belle [Alice Sherman] and the break-up of their relationship as Scrooge becomes more enamored with money than with her -- though it does seem a strange choice to have Mr. Clark actually participate in the various goings-on, when the novel and this production's second act take great pains to state that Scrooge is an invisible spectator to all the events of the past, present, and future.

James Bowen's version of the Ghost of Christmas Present has never been so jovial as in this year's show. A scene at Fred's Christmas party, with Mr.Berkes as a flustered Topper and Alice Sherman sharing a comical "meow-duet" with Megan Woodley, keeps a light tone. Yet, he shows Scrooge the impact of his miserliness on the Cratchit family, a group of optimists in a world that does them no favors. Mr. Sharp and Greta Lambert as Mrs. Cratchit are the ideal couple who raise their children to live good lives even in miserable financial straits in some of the most touching scenes in this production as they anticipate the end for their crippled child, Tiny Tim [Gavin Campbell].

As the final act's Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come [Joe O'Malley] frightens Scrooge (and us) with its silent gestures, Scrooge comes face to face with the reality of his life choices, especially in a scene where Old Joe and Mrs. Dlilber [Diana Van Fossen] haggle over the goods she has pilfered from Scrooge.

And when he awakens on Christmas morning, the magic of the previous night comes full circle. He is a changed man who keeps Christmas as it ought to be. The delight we see in Mr. Clark's transformation is infectious, and the audience cheers the outcome along with Tiny Tim's "God Bless Us...Everyone".