By Anthony Stoeckert
I’ve read Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” and have seen plenty of stage and screen adaptations over the years. I’ve seen classic Scrooges (Alastair Sim, George C. Scott), an American Scrooge (Henry Winkler) cartoon Scrooges (Mr. Magoo, Scrooge McDuck), and Michael Caine Bah! Humbugging it up with the Muppets.
By now, I should have had enough of Scrooge, Tiny Tim, Bob Cratchit, ghosts, and “God bless us, everyone,” but it turns out I haven’t.
I learned that while watching McCarter Theatre’s brand-new production of “A Christmas Carol.” During his journey into a Christmas past, Scrooge is shown the moment when he first danced with Belle, the woman he loved long ago, before his heart became so cold. In this version, Old Scrooge — terrifically played by Greg Wood — steps in the place of his younger self, and lights up as he holds the love he lost.
It’s the kind of moment that shows how an old story can be made fresh, without it being drastically changed or modernized. And this new version of the old story is filled with those moments.
The production, on stage at McCarter through Dec. 31, is directed by Adam Immerwahr and uses the same script by David Thompson that McCarter has been presenting for years. Audiences who have made a tradition of seeing McCarter’s “Christmas Carol” will be delighted.
Little in the actual script has been changed, but the look in the early scenes is danker and grayer, thanks to the work of set designer Daniel Ostling. Some special effects have been changed (such as the famous door knocker scene and the entrance of Marley’s Ghost). The giant puppet that played the Ghost of Christmas Yet-To-Come is gone, and replaced with something simpler, but which is effective and wonderfully creepy.
Mr. Immerwahr directed Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap” at McCarter last season. That was a lively, sometimes thrilling, staging of a play that loses its steam in Act 2. His immersive style is a terrific choice for “A Christmas Carol.” It opens with characters telling us to silence our phones and starting a sing-along, before Scrooge enters the scene and stops the fun, bringing us into the show in an unexpected and exciting fashion. Another terrific touch comes later in the show when Scrooge leaves the spirt world into his bedroom on Christmas morning.
Some scenes have been streamlined, and a few characters removed. Gone is Fezziwig’s daughter, who was funny, but there was a meanness to how Marley and Scrooge avoided dancing with her. We see more of Scrooge’s home, not just his bedroom, and the hallway is depicted as cavernous and worn-down from years of neglect. The huge hallway wall allows for a terrific use of projection.
“A Christmas Carol” can’t be successful without an excellent Scrooge, and Mr. Wood makes a great one. He is bitter and angry early on, but also worn down by life, you get the sense he’s been ranting about Christmas for years and would just like to be left alone because no one is smart enough to listen to him. He’s vicious when refusing to donate to the poor and when denying his maid Mrs. Dilber (Sue Jim Song) from taking off Christmas Day.
Playing the mean scenes must be fun, but the real crux of playing Scrooge is the transformation, and Mr. Wood expertly shows Scrooge’s softening, bit by bit until he’s brimming with joy. There’s a scene toward the end when the reformed Scrooge jumps in delight with Mrs. Dilber that is sure to warm your heart.
Frank X is brilliant as Marley’s Ghost; playing the character as truly tortured by his burden, penance for a selfish life. Later in the show, Mr. X gets to show his funny side as Old Joe.
Warner Miller is Bob Cratchit, and gets plenty of laughs early on (I’ll always chuckle when Scrooge tells Cratchit he’s always first in line to get paid). Watch Mr. Miller at the very end when Scrooge and Tiny Tim have their moment. It’s a small gesture of a parent, but very powerful.
Lance Roberts and Anne L. Nathan are a blast to watch as Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig, one of the happiest couples of all time. Their personalities fill the room with laughter and love, as they joke and dance, but Mr. Roberts also brings a hint of anger, sadness and disappointment later on.
Elisha Lawson plays Young Marley well, keep an eye on him during the party scene when a child plays the violin.
There isn’t a bad performance in the cast, but other standouts include Jamila Sabares-Klemm as Lily and Belle, young Ivy Cordle as the Ghost of Christmas Past, JD Taylor as Fred and the Undertaker, and Ms. Song as Mrs. Dilber.
It’s no wonder why “A Christmas Carol” is performed so often. It’s a really good story, and it remains an effective one. 2016 has been an exhausting year, it’s good to know that this Princeton tradition is in good hands.
“A Christmas Carol” continues at McCarter Theatre, 91 University Place, Princeton, through Dec. 31. For tickets and information, go to mccarter.org or call 609-258-2787.