Theater Review: A CHRISTMAS CAROL (Ahmanson Theatre)

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by Marc Wheeler on December 4, 2021

in Theater-Los Angeles

SCROOGED

After a year or two since Covid shutdowns made in-person theater nearly unheard of, a new adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has made its way from London to Broadway to sunny L.A. to liven our world-weary spirits. And luckily, surprisingly … eventually … it manages to do just that, if only in its final 20 minutes. That’s when this Carol—adapted by Jack Thorne, with original direction by Matthew Warchus for The Old Vic—remembers what it is and why it’s even telling this oft-performed, 19th-century tale in the first place.

Yes, I know, this sounds like a bah humbug! of a review—at least for the most part. Trust me, I’m as perplexed as you. I went into this already won-over (“yuletide pushover” that I am), and it still managed to lose me, minute by minute, until intermission came and I, needing fresh air, found myself outside the Ahmanson Theatre, dumbfounded. “What on earth is going on?” I asked myself. “How did they manage to mess up A Christmas Carol?” Before we get to that—and the surprising turnaround—let’s do a quick refresher on this Charles Dickens classic.

As we know, Carol tells of the miserly London shop-owner Ebenezer Scrooge (Bradley Whitford) who one fateful Christmas Eve is visited by the ghost of his deceased business partner Jacob Marley (Chris Hoch) warning him that he will be visited by three Ghosts—Christmas Past (Kate Burton), Christmas Present (Alex Newell), and Christmas Yet to Come (*N/S*)—all of whom, as the night goes on, offer him a sobering look at his life and future. Sprinkle in the Cratchits, a transformed heart, and Tiny Tim’s (Sebastian Ortiz, alternating with Cade Robertson) famous Christmas blessing, and we have our happily-merry-after.

All this, we know. But none of that should matter. The reason we keep coming back to this story is not because we want to know what happens, but because we want to be moved. And we can only be moved if we’re fully-immersed in a fleshed-out world presented to us as if we’re experiencing it for the first time.

That’s where this adaptation (directed by Thomas Caruso for this touring production) goes terribly wrong. Assuming we already know the story, it moves along at a rapid clip, using narration and quick scenes to get to its crowd-pleaser of an ending. First, as good storytellers know: show, don’t tell. Second, a mere conveyor belt of Christmas Carol highlights isn’t what people come for, as this work corrects in its final act. Even Marley’s grand entrance (a scene that’s normally built up to with eeriness and dread) has all the grandeur of a drive-by “boo!”

Boo, indeed. This production is unfortunately littered with such ill-conceived carelessness. For instance, Rob Howell’s scenic design, though gorgeous in its abstraction (the overhead lanterns are hauntingly atmospheric), doesn’t create a clear sense of time and place, making it hard to know where we are and what exactly is going on, especially with a CliffsNotes-inspired script.

To add to the confusion, the direction is puzzling and internally-inconsistent. Scrooge falls asleep standing-up in one scene; lying on the floor, as if in bed, the next. (What?) Also, the script’s language, in conjunction with Howell’s appropriately drab period costumes, are indicative of 1800s London. And yet, the Cratchits are an interracial couple, and Scrooge (white) has a black sister and nephew. If this were race-blind “rainbow casting”—where race, from the start, is so obviously improbable it’s quickly ignorable—it would be easier to accept and move on. Here, however, it tries to make some sort of sense, reinforcing its unlikeliness and having us make-up absurd backstories in our minds when we should be focusing on the story.

In another scene, adult actor Harry Thornton awkwardly portrays Childhood Scrooge playing with his little dolls. Maybe, I thought, they didn’t want the bother of hiring child actors. Except they do cast them: two kids alternate as Tiny Tim. Moreover, Young-Adult Scrooge is played by Adult Scrooge himself, and acts nearly identically. (Why is there a separate actor for Childhood Scrooge but not for the Young-Adult one?) One of the most head-scratching choices is when the Ghost of Christmas Past shows up like a blind Miss Cleo sporting dark glasses and a pseudo-Jamaican accent. (Your guess is as good as mine.)

After a while it’s like: come on. Audiences can suspend some disbelief, but directorial confusion of this magnitude stretches us thin, especially in a work that in other ways plays itself totally straight. Ultimately, the more we are taken out by such baffling choices, the story isn’t being served—and story is king. I’ll give it this: it nails the ending. Absolutely nails it. It’s bold and ambitious, taking artistic liberties (sorry, purists) that score. It’s almost a payoff (or payback) for all that came before—almost.

In the role of Scrooge, Bradley Whitford, most known for his Emmy-winning work on The West Wing, starts off embodying the miser with a mild-mannered affect more indicative of a typical boss than the curmudgeon to which we are accustomed. Given this, I wondered how impactful his transformation would be. Surprisingly, he pulls it off. Giddy and drunk on cheer, Whitford’s “Christmas Morning” Scrooge is refreshingly delightful, sweeping the play into a whole new genre that’s raucous and heartfelt and—most of all—welcome.

Bringing a gender-bending touch to the Ghost of Christmas Present and Mrs. Fezziwig, Alex Newell (Glee, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist) utilizes his extraordinary pipes and fiery persona to great effect. In the supporting role of Belle, Scrooge’s one-time romantic interest, Sarah Hunt is a wonder, both resolute and self-assured.

Admittedly, I left the theater (COVID-hiatus aside) smiling bigger than I’ve left one in a long time. When the work remembers why it’s telling this story in the first place, it soars. For that, I’m grateful. I also love Christopher Nightingale’s music (it’s beautiful), the willingness to take chances in revision (it’s rewarding), and the richly-written and delicately-performed scene between Scrooge and Tiny Tim (it broke my heart). I also love seeing the diverse cast embody goodwill toward humanity in a post-show send-off (it’s just what the doctor ordered). Finally, if these last couple years were a Dickensian fever dream, our work begins where this robust final act ends. Even with my many reservations, I’d rather end on that positive note. (Call it the Christmas Spirit.) Tiny Tim, here’s your cue, little guy.

photos by Joan Marcus

A Christmas Carol
The Old Vic / National Tour
presented by Center Theatre Group
Music Center’s Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave.
for tickets, call 213.972.4400 or visit CTG
ends on January 2, 2022

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