Any way you slice it, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is as classic a holiday offering as fruitcake. And like that redoubtable dessert, it’s best served fresh, a little nutty and with extra dollops of sweetness.
Three DFW theaters are ending the year with productions of A Christmas Carol. They’re all good (for different reasons). And they each clock in at a brisk 90 minutes — just enough time to kill off Jacob Marley, awaken miserly Ebenezer Scrooge to the errors of his ways via visits from four ghosts and to save the life of poor Tiny Tim, all before the cock crows on Christmas morn.
The biggest Carol in town is the spectacular one by Dallas Theater Center at the Wyly Theatre. Artistic director Kevin Moriarty debuted his own adaptation of the story two years ago, and it’s back for a third time, but amped up with more dramatic lighting, more majestic harmonies, more of all of your favorite things, including snowflakes that fall on your nose and eyelashes.
Sticking closely to Dickens’ plot, Moriarty’s take does deliver a strong political message about haves and have-nots. There’s extra emphasis on how Ebenezer Scrooge thinks the meager wage he pays his factory workers, who include children, is too generous. Declaring that “industry is rewarded,” Scrooge disdains charity and callously regards the poor and sick as leeches on society, wishing them dead “to decrease the surplus population.” (Sound familiar? With those sentiments, if Scrooge were running for president right now, he’d be at the top of the GOP polls.)
After his awakening through those midnight visits to Christmases past, present and future, however, Scrooge changes his attitude, promising raises to his employees and swearing that he’ll “take care of all your families.” (In the modern sequel, Congress would repeal Ebenezercare.)
DTC company member Christie Vela has directed this year’s Carol and she’s pumped it up, making the jolly parts jollier (Dorcas Leung is a giggly bonbon as the ghost who flies up and over the audience) and the spooky parts of this “ghost story for Christmas” even spookier (Alex Organ as Marley’s ghost is a walking dead phenom). She also has a new Scrooge (company member Hassan El-Amin, giving a huge and emotionally raw performance), plus 30 other ethnically diverse actors and musicians, singing and dancing to Jeremy Dumont’s bright choreography amid a nonstop whirl of eye-popping special effects (fog! snow! a hydraulic four-poster bed!).
The Wyly’s cold industrial architecture fits the early part of the show — watch the little kids stoke the glowing coal furnaces in Scrooge’s murky factory. (Scenic and lighting design by Beowulf Boritt and Jeff Croiter are super-mega-supremo.) Then magically the space turns into a glowing jewel box of twinkly lights and glowing candles. When El-Amin, as the reborn Scrooge, tearfully sings a final traditional carol, a choir of bell-ringers appears. Even hearts two sizes too small will soften for that.
At tiny Theatre Too in the Quadrangle, actor B.J. Cleveland is going it alone, doing 22 voices and all the sound effects in A Christmas Carol: The Radio Show by David Alberts (directed by Gene Raye Price). Set in a tiny Midwestern radio station in 1947, the one-act play finds Cleveland’s character, the station manager, forced to do a live broadcast of the Dickens story solo when actors are waylaid by a blizzard.
Crinkling cellophane to sound like a fire, clapping coconut shells for the clip-clop of hooves, Cleveland is a marvel to watch and to listen to. He’s a whiz at voices and accents. Listen closely and you’ll hear his Marley, his Cratchits and his Fezziwigs mimic Truman Capote, Lionel Barrymore, W.C. Fields and Dame Maggie Smith. His Tiny Tim might be Freddie Bartholomew. Judge for yourself.
Don’t expect frenetic comedy in this one. Cleveland paces the storytelling, building to the payoff of Scrooge’s enlightenment. His performance is as assured and comforting as one of FDR’s radio fireside chats.
In The Studio at Fort Worth’s Stage West, another one-actor adaptation has Emily Scott Banks in top form playing everyone in Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol, a twist on the Dickens story that has Scrooge’s business partner front and center.
As playwright Tom Mula of Chicago’s Goodman Theatre has interpreted it, A Christmas Carol is the saga of Marley’s redemption, along with Scrooge’s. Only after death does Marley realize his greed and pursuit of profit at the expense of humanity were “the chains I forged in life.” Now burdened in the afterlife by those heavy iron links, caught between heaven and hell, Marley joins a Tinkerbell-like spirit to revisit Scrooge in ghostly forms and save him from the same fate.
Under direction by Garret Storms, Banks, using impressive physicality and vocal variety, creates the sound and look of dozens of characters, old and young, male and female. Her quick additions of hats, coats and scarves, and the use of a tiny flashlight and some candles make it easy to follow her switches from Marley to Scrooge to a Fezziwig or two, plus the ghosts and others. Lighting by Nate Davis, who also designed the attic-like set (in partnership with Storms), is as much an acting partner for Banks as Mula’s Dickensian dialogue. It’s all simply gorgeous.
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On their stages large and small, A Christmas Carol is worth revisiting at these theaters. God bless ’em, every one.
A Christmas Carol
continues through December 26 at Dallas Theater Center, Wyly Theatre, 2400 Flora St. Tickets $18-$100 at 214-880-0202 or dallastheatercenter.org.
A Christmas Carol: The Radio Show
continues through December 20 at Theatre Too (below Theatre Three), 2800 Routh St. (behind Dream Café). Tickets $35-$40 at 214-871-3300 or theatre3dallas.com.
Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol
continues through December 20 at The Studio at Stage West, 821 W. Vickery Blvd., Fort Worth. Tickets $31-$35 at 817-784-9378 or stagewest.org.