By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Once again, 'tis old-coot season. That's what Christmas theater is, right? Time to celebrate the eccentricities of crotchety old men, some with beards, some without.
If there's a grand vizier of geezers, he's Ebenezer Scrooge, star of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Dallas Theater Center's big and boisterous annual production of this "ghost story of Christmas" has returned to the Kalita Humphreys Theater for the eighth straight year. Next year DTC will entertain holiday audiences with a different play about a different codger (not yet announced), but they'll do it at the Wyly Theatre downtown.
DTC has stuck with the Richard Hellesen adaptation of the Dickens classic for so long because it works. Happy songs by David de Berry (with lyrics adapted from traditional English carols) break up the narrative bits taken straight from the Dickens novella. The bursts of music give the large cast a chance to kick up heels and bounce bosoms in their pretty period frocks by Wade Laboissonniere.
The staging by director Joel Ferrell is full of skeery sound effects, clouds of fog and surprisingly effective visual shocks; the sudden appearance of the Ghost of Christmas Past never fails to elicit shrieks from the audience. The actors, even those affecting bad Cockney accents, make it all a treat, even on repeat viewings. (I've seen this version eight times, and four others DTC did before it.)
Up to now, Ferrell's only rule with this Christmas Carol has been never to let the same actor do the same role twice. But DTC company member Chamblee Ferguson is back again as Scrooge (whom he first played in 2010), winding up his year of terrific work that included starring roles in The Tempest, Tigers Be Still and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. (Also look for Ferguson as Cornwall in the upcoming King Lear — Shakespeare's old coot epic — at the Wyly, opening January 18.)
With white whiskers glued to his angular cheeks, Ferguson makes a fearsomely cranky Scrooge, barking at his employee Bob Cratchit (whom Ferguson also has played — shoot, the only part he hasn't done is Tiny Tim). On the glorious, about-to-be-retired scenery by Bob Lavallee, Scrooge and Cratchit stand at their desks, Bob (Steven Walters, also reprising his role) wanly warming his cold hands on a flickering candle. When the Kalita stage revolves, the office makes way for Scrooge's bed chamber, with its curtained four-poster and towering armoires. When old Ebenezer is visited by the four ghosts, his bed rolls and twirls around in circles, with Scrooge hanging on for dear life. Those four ghosts: Dead business partner Jacob Marley (Brian J. Gonzales, fresh off his starring turn in Lyric's 1776 and good as ever); Christmas Past (Blake Hackler); Christmas Present (Liz Mikel); and the gigantic, hooded Christmas Future (credited as being played by "Himself.")
Classical actors talk about "going through the Hamlet hoop" in their careers. They also call Ebenezer Scrooge "the Christmas Hamlet" for how strenuous a role it really is. Some great actors have gone through the Scrooge hoop at DTC, including Lincoln-like Kurt Rhoads, former company member Sean Hennigan and former Royal Shakespeare Company actor Robert Langdon Lloyd, who did it several times.
Ferguson, who's not just a fine actor but a wonderful reactor, may be the favorite. His Scrooge's transition from bitter, hateful miser, content to go through life "as solitary as an oyster," to soft-hearted, loving uncle, is done with subtle strokes. We see him narrow in on self-reflection before widening out to pure joy. At the end of his nightmarish visitations, this Scrooge curls into the fetal position at the foot of that huge bed, saying quietly, "I'm quite a baby." Ferguson's Scrooge seems the most reborn of any at the end of the play. When he shouts that he feels "lighter than air," he does it hanging off the bed posts, swinging his skinny legs like a little kid on a jungle gym.
Charles Dickens hoped his ghostly tale of poverty — of the soul, not just the pocketbook — and redemption would be understood and loved by readers. "May it haunt their houses pleasantly," the author wrote in his intro to the story. It has certainly done just that at the Kalita these past eight winters.