A Christmas Carol

Fantasy Playhouse is currently performing the classic A Christmas Carol at the Von Braun Center, running one more weekend. While it isn’t a perfect production of the story, they do a fine job of presenting this centuries-old tale, successfully portraying the characters and plot elements we all know. Fantasy Playhouse mounts this production every December, which has the advantage of allowing them to recycle excellent technical elements year after year, but it does require the acting and directing to keep it fresh every time. This year’s production manages to showcase the technical elements to the point of occasional overkill, while providing enough of the artistic elements to make for an enjoyable evening.

Charles Dickens wrote the novella of the same name roughly 175 years ago, when England was in the midst of the Industrial Revolution, and struggling to deal with the difficulties of the poor. There was a desire to help those less fortunate, but not bankrupt the country or provide “support” to those who could work but chose not to—the same struggles we see today and probably always will. Several of Dickens’ most famous works deal with what he saw as the unjust way that society treated its poor, and A Christmas Carol is one of them—portraying a caricature of the greedy capitalist and his journey toward self-discovery and learning compassion for his fellow man. In fact, as we all know, the main character of this book and play, Scrooge, has become synonymous with an uncompassionate miser.

Because everyone knows how A Christmas Carol ends, for the play to work the audience has to be swept up in the journey itself. We have to see the fascinating steps that Scrooge takes to get from miser to compassionate person, as he experiences the visions provided by the three spirits. In general, Jeff White’s direction works well for the scenes that Scrooge is viewing, but unfortunately adds little to the script for Scrooge’s personal journey.

The visions with the ghost of Christmas Past, ably played by Kyra Henderson, are generally very well done. The child Scrooge, ably played by Gavin Parker, hits just the right note of pathos, singing to himself, alone on the schoolyard swing, though the arrival of his sister becomes a blur of incomprehensible dialogue. Largely a fault of the script, the reason that young Scrooge is never home for Christmas is completely lost, and the scene actually raises more questions about Scrooge’s childhood than it supposedly answers. The scenes with the young adult Scrooge are a mixed bag. The Fezziwig party, when Scrooge and Belle get engaged, is a blast of fun, exactly as it should be. Wayne Parker and Cheri Furno are excellent as Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig, and while the Fezziwig family speaks as many dialects as there are members, the sheer joy of their party can’t help but bring a smile to the audience’s faces. Claire Mitchell, as Scrooge’s fiancé, Belle, is nearly a show-stopper. The visions of Scrooge’s young-adult life are carried along by her enthusiasm and boundless energy, and the audience completely understands why Scrooge fell for her in the first place, and why it is such a tragedy that he turned away from her to concentrate on wealth. Jason Lightfoot does a fine job as the young Ebenezer, but unfortunately, the break-up scene in his office misses the mark by being overly emotional. Young Scrooge is too easily distracted from his work (after insisting that Belle stop distracting him), and gets too emotional about Belle leaving, so that Scrooge comes across as more sympathetic than he should be in this scene. While the true pathos of the scene is lost, the audience can’t help but wonder how Scrooge’s life would have been different if he had chosen Belle over money.

The visions with the ghost of Christmas Present, wonderfully played with booming cheer by David Schulte, are both successful. The Cratchit family is spot-on, practically radiating the loving bonds necessary for their scene to work, and for Scrooge to see the life of his impoverished employee. The entire Cratchit family, but in particular Corbin Holland as Bob, and Claire Johnson as his wife, are wonderful. We can see both the pain and the love inherent in their family. Nicholas Curry, as Tiny Tim, is perfect in his role, and successfully builds the connection with the audience needed for us, and Scrooge, to be affected by his death later in the play. The party at the house of Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, with Erik Mortimer giving a valiant effort in that role, seems to have been attended by residents of the 21st, rather than the 19th century, but everyone is having so much fun we can’t help but let that pass and enjoy the moment.

The visions with the ghost of Christmas Future are moderately successful. The Cratchit family is perfect again, showing a group of people whose light has gone from their lives. It is a shame that the crutch and empty chair, as previously described by the spirit of Christmas Present, are not established as a focal point of the scene, but the family does excellent work nonetheless. The scene with the charwomen and Old Joe, divvying up dead Scrooge’s belongings, serves its purpose, but is a bit lost in some unintelligible dialects. The final scene in the graveyard is apparently an excuse to fire off all the remaining pyrotechnics for no particular reason, which sadly buries Scrooge’s realization that it is his death that everyone is so happy about.

So what effect do all of these visions have on present-day Scrooge, traveling through time with the Spirits? Chuck Puckett does a wonderful job portraying everything asked of Scrooge at any given moment. Though Scrooge’s journey isn’t as crafted as it could be, Puckett is in the moment every second, pulling off everything from the irascible curmudgeon at the beginning, to the joyful feeling of carpe diem at the end. The problem is the journey in between, which is uneven. It should be a slow transformation, as Scrooge’s heart is softened by reminders of happier times of his youth with Christmas Past, adds a touch of humanity as he sees the effects of his current behavior with Christmas Present, and subjects him to abject horror as he views the results of continuing down that road with Christmas Future. Instead, this production gives us a Scrooge that thaws instantly to giddiness when reliving his past, and is already converted by halfway through his time with Christmas Present, so that the visit from Christmas Future seems unnecessary.

Still, the production works, if nothing else, because of the strength and fame of the source material. The script, generally well-constructed by Fantasy Playhouse members Deborah Fleischman and Vivienne Atkins years ago, works well, and captures the flavor of Dickens’ novella. The use of the twelve carolers as a narration device nicely moves the audience from one scene to the next, though their first appearance as an actual group of carolers on the street is a mistake, leaving the audience a bit confused when they first take up their role as the play’s Greek chorus. Also, Christmas Present’s Attendants are an odd device that seems to add nothing to the script other than more roles for children. The potential for them to provide funny bits of stage business, as these Attendants move items around stage, was a bit wasted as most of the moments were staged half-hidden and facing upstage. The appearance of Ignorance and Want with Christmas Present, while staged a bit too much like The Walking Dead, adequately gets the story’s message across to the audience without feeling like a club. Finally, at the end, when the new Scrooge is bestowing Christmas joy on everyone, the script requires the audience to believe that everyone around him is willing to accept this miraculous change of heart in mere seconds, but it’s a weakness in Dickens’ story as well, so it can be forgiven.

Fantasy Playhouse has managed to build up quite a wonderful set for this annual production, and it is a rare treat for community theatre audiences to see things like turntables and flies in use. Overall, the staging made masterful use of the space, hitting all levels and areas. The travels to the sites of the visions dragged a bit with Christmas Past, but picked up nicely with Christmases Present and Future. The flash pots behind Scrooge’s house are placed uncomfortably for a slice of audience seated house center-left, blinding those unfortunate to have those seats, but they serve their purpose of providing a little flash and excitement to the show.

Greg Rowell, as the sound designer, certainly loves reverb. Marley’s speeches, as delivered by the capable Paul Buxton, are almost unintelligible at times, but generally the echo effect for the Spirits is well done. It is questionable that the twelve carolers should need microphones, and there were the occasional typical microphone problems, but overall the technical aspects of the sound effects were well handled.

Chris Lighthall’s lighting design was confusing at times. There was a tendency to put the first and last 30 seconds of scenes in half-light, and have everything up full in the middle, with no discernible reason for the difference. The use of spotlights was also hit-or-miss, with Scrooge and the current Spirit sometimes in spotlight, and sometimes not, with again no discernible reason for the difference. But overall, the lighting served its purpose, to illuminate the action and help set the mood.

Gay Broad did a fine job of preparing Fantasy Playhouse’s store of costumes built up over the years for this production. Every character was well represented, and there was a clear distinction between the classes. Possibly the only questionable costuming choice, given the bright colors of everyone else on stage, is the appearance in the massed street scenes of Old Joe dressed all in black, reminiscent of Oliver Twist’s Fagin, another Dickens character. He stands out like sore thumb, drawing the audience’s eyes, expecting something to happen with him.

Newt Johnson’s vocal and musical direction is excellent. Other than selecting a chorus member for a featured section of a song who struggled to stay on key, the singing and live music are masterfully executed, and well balanced across the multiple parts. Teresa Hasemeyer’s choreography is likewise excellent. The period dances were as fun to watch as they likely were to perform.

Overall, this is an enjoyable experience for the audience, and well worth the price of admission. While it may not be the ultimate production of A Christmas Carol, it is an admirable, and at times impressive, staging of the classic Dickens tale.  Final performances are this Thursday through Sunday, 10-13 December, with ticket prices $15-$20.  Reservation information available on the Fantasy Playhouse webpage.

Any comments or feedback, feel free to send me an email:  HuntsvilleTheatreReviews@gmail.com.