By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
We wear the chains we forge in life. Link by link their weight increases until at last the burden is so great it drags us down into the grave.
As a Christmas message, this one is sort of "open vein, insert tinsel." But it is the lesson taught in Charles Dickens' timeless ghost story, A Christmas Carol, now getting its annual year-end outing on the main stage at Dallas Theater Center. Lead a generous, loving life, says Dickens, and the chain you forge forms a slender golden tether to heaven. But be a misanthropic old grouch like Carol's main character Ebenezer Scrooge and you'll be welded to an anchor of everlasting misery.
Jacob Marley, Scrooge's longtime business partner, learned what really matters only after lugging his heavy chains into the afterlife. Seven years since shaking off his mortal coil on a Christmas Eve, he returns to haunt his old pal Scrooge, pulling behind him the thick, symbolic links of his many transgressions. In the first of four visions that will awaken Scrooge before Christmas dawns, Marley, in an extravagantly well-voiced return performance by actor Dean Nolen, warns his friend that unless he changes his outlook on life, he, too, soon will be clink-clanking as a restless spirit.
How Scrooge begins to see the error of his ways and decides to alter his destiny is the beauty of this tale and of DTC's production, the biggest and most popular show at this theater this year and any year. Using the same musical adaptation written by Richard Hellesen, scored by David de Berry and directed by Joel Ferrell that it staged in 2005, DTC explores the deeper existential and spiritual qualities of A Christmas Carol without losing any of the heartwarming spark or spectacle. This is a show with everything: musical numbers to keep the kids amused, and for grown-up theatergoers, richly textured performances by a first-rate ensemble that employs more professional Dallas actors than DTC usually hires in an entire season.
Some smart casting changes freshen things up considerably this time around. This year's star is English actor Robert Langdon Lloyd, a veteran of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Lloyd bears a strong resemblance to the actor Sir Ian Holm, who played Bilbo Baggins in the Lord of the Rings movies, and creates a small but tightly wound Scrooge. Unlike the younger, lankier versions in years past, this older Ebenezer really does act like a man whose life force is ebbing away. He openly disparages Christmas, crippled children, the poor who beg on his doorstep and his only living relatives, who mock him unmercifully at their holiday parties. There's only one thing this scowling geezer appreciates. "Darkness is cheap," says one of the narrators. "Scrooge liked it."
Darkness abounds in DTC's Victorian-era Carol. Out of spooky shadows emerges Marley, his face as greenish-gray as a horror-movie zombie. As an eerie fog roils over the stage, ragged street urchins waft on from the wings to sing snatches of traditional English carols in minor keys. The play unfolds with a combination of multi-voice story-theater narration by various cast members and dialogue exchanged between Scrooge and his nervous clerk, Bob Cratchit (Chamblee Ferguson), and Scrooge and his spectral visitors.
Ooh, those ghosts really do a number on the old fellow. After Marley's drop-in comes the puckish Ghost of Christmas Past, played by Dallas actor Ashley Wood. He introduces a flashback to Scrooge in his lonely boarding school days and reminds him of the heartbreak he suffered as a young man when his fiancée (Lynn Blackburn) realized her future mate loved shillings and pounds more than he loved her.
Next up is the stern and accusatory Ghost of Christmas Present, played by M. Denise Lee, the much-adored Dallas chanteuse last seen at DTC in Crowns. Doubling in the role of Mrs. Fezziwig, Lee brings her velvet alto to the "Wassail Song" and then shakes the timbers with her booming recriminations of Scrooge as she parades before him the sad-eyed children named "Ignorance" and "Want" (Lorenzo Salazar, Harini Suresh).
Performed in two one-hour acts, this production is lavish with the action. The revolving stage in the Kalita Humphreys Theater appears to spin twice as fast as it ever has, with Scrooge's tall four-poster bed twirling at dizzying speed on top of it. The elaborate set designed by Bob Lavallee is a marvel of movement and quick changes, all elements working to enhance the storytelling without becoming distracting. Lighting by Matthew Richards paints scenes in muted chiaroscuro, gradually bathing the stage in warm amber as the sun rises on Scrooge's new life and he vows to "honor Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year."
Despite its old-fashioned look and its loyalty to Dickens' words, DTC's Christmas Carol does have its contemporary touches. The color-blind casting gives an especially modern profile to the Cratchit family. The parents are white, as is Tiny Tim, sweetly portrayed by 5-year-old Anderson Elementary kindergartner William Junkin. But the other Cratchit offspring—played by Salazar, Farrah West, Ian Flanagan and Emily Wagman—are as ethnically diverse as the Jolie-Pitt clan. This is a Carol of many colors.