A CHRISTMAS CAROL at McCarter: Why Live Theatre Stays Live

by Terry Stern

(l. to r.) Justin Blanchard (Jacob Marley) and Graeme Malcolm (Ebenezer Scrooge) star in McCarter Theatre's A CHRISTMAS CAROL. (Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson)

If there is a single story in the English language which embodies today’s heart of Christmas, it is A CHRISTMAS CAROL. Begun as a political pamphlet about the plight of poor children in early 1843, Dickens withheld its publication, revised it, and published it later in the year under its present title.

It was written at a time when the Christmas tree and card were first being introduced to English culture. The story, in its many incarnations and iterations, is credited with bringing joy and song back to the celebration of the holiday after a period of somber sobriety and keeping it there for over 150 years unto the present day.

Nearly everyone I know, Christian or not, was raised on this beautiful, early Victorian cautionary tale. So, Charles Dickens and Alastair Sim notwithstanding, A CHRISTMAS CAROL is definitely an American classic.

It is most fitting, then, that it should be staged with such elegantly magical depth, grit and splash by the crown jewel of New Jersey theatres, The McCarter Theatre of Princeton. Venerable and rightfully venerated, the McCarter is the Everest of regional theatres and has been nearly since its opening in 1930.

Endowed with a proud history and a technical staff of 30, there is no end to the riveting beauty, clarity and delight of the stage pictures it presents in its productions, particularly this one. Wigglingly exciting images, sounds and animations from the hair-raising door knocker to the blaze of the flaming headstone with a giant, eerily animated puppet of death filling a quarter of the stage from floor to proscenium arch directing the climax. The spectacle dazzles earnestly and seamlessly from start to finish in a manner most satisfyingly matched by the performances it supports.

Graeme Malcolm gives us a twisted wick of a Scrooge, hauntingly gaunt, crabby and spare atop the mountain of his success, presented in a towering, unsettlingly off-center set by designer Ming Cho Lee. Mr. Malcolm rants, snarls and forcefully fulfills the deliciously evil character we hate so much it makes us laugh.

Graeme Malcolm (Ebenezer Scrooge) and Ronica Reddick (Christmas Present) in a scene from the holiday classic, A CHRISTMAS CAROL, running at McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ through December 24. (Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson)

Agile and with fine timing and form, he makes an entrance you do not want to miss to open the second act. You may wish to avert your gaze if you are acrophobic, but you will be yanking on the sleeve of the person sitting next to you demanding to know what’s going on. His is the show’s deep, steady anchor.

The Ghost of Christmas Present is styled by Ronica Reddick with the quirky flair of a slightly over-caffeinated interior designer insouciantly arranging and rearranging a room. Except her room is Scrooge. She bears a twinkling, sprinkling, chiming wand and gleefully wreaks havoc on Scrooge’s equilibrium, not to mention the audience’s. She is an elegant, comic delight.

Piper Goodeye and Michele Tauber, two most versatile actresses playing multiple supporting parts, most notably and hysterically as Mrs. Bonds and Mrs. Stocks, the two solicitresses who come seeking respite for the poor at this season of the year. As their names so clearly attest, one cannot do without the other. They fill in each other’s words and finish each other’s sentences, bustling about like fairy godmothers who’ve had more than the recommended amount of cocoa for one day.

The young actors in this performance delight and amaze. Danny Hallowell gives us a Peter Cratchit which embodies the yeoman’s spirit of optimistic youth, taking the stage as if mastering a mountain peak and crying out gleefully in triumph to us below. Matthew Kuene is a wonderful, harried delivery boy straining under a burden which looks nearly as large as he is and drawing strong laughs with his impatience at the unbelieving fools looking their gift horse in the mouth.

Which brings us to the ghosts of Christmas past. This role is brilliantly given to Annika Goldman, Kate Fahey and Samantha Johnson, three young actors who show stamina and talent, dancing, leaping, and laughing in innocent enjoyment of their spirit selves and who provide the perfect, non-threatening bridge to introduce Scrooge to the spirit world.

The cast deserves more praise than I can give here. The Cratchits and Fezziwigs deserve mention, the char woman, laundress and undertaker demand a word as does Old Joe, There is no one I would omit from a fair review with unlimited space and a readership of infinite patience. But I would like to cite the director, Michael Unger.

This is Mr. Unger’s 14th year directing the McCarter’s holiday offering, and the vision he brings to the stage carves its own, spacious niche amongst the myriad of productions, performances and renditions of this story. At once comfortingly familiar and surprisingly its own, Mr. Unger’s offering is as sweet as they ever come. Thank you so much, Mr. Unger, not only for this tasty, Christmas treat, but for giving us an incontrovertible argument proving live theatre will never die. It provides spectacle more amazing than movies and more intelligent than circuses.

I would encourage everyone to get to see this blazing spectacle of hope and transformation. It will not be the cheapest ticket you ever bought, but it will be the most wisely-spent money you ever laid down for a seat.

And that would do it except for a final observation. This is some of the best, full-range theatre appearing on any stage anywhere in the world. Yet, when we got a bit turned round on our way there and stopped to ask less than a mile from the curtain, no one had any idea what we were talking about. “Is that a movie theater?” asked one.

Places like The McCarter gamely address this painful disjuncture between art and daily life, collecting for local charities and food banks at the end of the performance. But they are not nearly enough. It will take a full-blown, cooperative effort on the part of the theatre world, community theatre in particular, to make a dent. Community theatre must not be timid in leading the way on this.

Take this in the joyous and grateful spirit in which it is offered: I saw a beautiful confluence of experienced craft, honed talent, elegant space and first-rate equipment, materials and supplies on the McCarter stage. It is an assemblage which cannot easily be elsewhere matched.

But there are a number of actors I’ve seen on smaller, less elegant community stages whose talents would fill out a production such as this quite nicely. And this does not in the least diminish the respect and high regard in which I hold the fine actors at McCarter. I saw huge talent there, and I saw no talent I haven’t seen matched many times on community stages.

Training isn’t cheap, and the courage to trust in your own talent is hard to come by. But talent is universal. We’ve got it, every one. Let’s join with excellent theatres like The McCarter to get theatre rooted into real life. Everyone within ten miles of the place should know exactly where it is and what fine things take place there.

by Charles Dickens
Adaptation by David Thompson
Original music and lyrics by Michael Starobin
Directed by Michael Unger
through December 24, 2011
The McCarter Theatre Center
91 University Place
Princeton, NJ
609-258-ARTS (2787)

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