Theater Review: Civic’s ‘Christmas Carol’ touching, timeless
It was written in 1843 in the midst of the bleakness of the Industrial Revolution, but also in a period in England when interest in Christmas traditions was being revived. Charles Dickens’ novella, “A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas,” was perfect for its time.
In its telling of the conversion of the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, the story epitomizes the contradiction between the worsening plight of the poor working class, and the revival of joyful holiday celebrations and family gatherings filled with music, dancing, seasonal foods and expectations of warm-hearted generosity.
“A Christmas Carol” resonates today, whether as the book that has never gone out of print, or one of the 50 some stage adaptations produced since it was first published. The wonder of it all is that “A Christmas Carol” can and has been revised numerous times in various ways without sacrificing the substance and meaning of the tale.
Numbered among these faithful adaptations is Civic Theatre of Allentown’s 28th staging of the holiday classic with its addition of music, dancing and slight tweaking along the way. Adapted for the theater by Sharon Lee Glassman and Civic Theatre Artistic Director William Sanders, and directed by Sanders (who is also the choreographer) and Joann Wilchek Basist, the play runs through Dec. 16. The Dec. 1 opening night performance was seen for this review.
In this year’s Civic production, a storyteller (Sawyer Herbine) again introduces the account of Scrooge and his ghosts rather than the novella’s usual stark first line, “Marley was dead: to begin with.” There also are some unexpected comic lines and funny business to watch for, along with sound effects. Other innovations include an organ-playing Ghost of Christmas Present, a foggy entrance for the Ghost of Christmas Past and, of course, some new principal cast members.
Jeffrey Jones gives a polished performance as Ebenezer Scrooge. His line delivery and vocal cadence is excellent. In the well-played opening scene with Bob Cratchit (Brian Rock) and nephew Fred (Jonathon Krippe), Jones exudes just the right degree of meanness while giving subtle hints of the underlying pain that his gruffness tries to hide. When these causes are revealed later by the visiting ghosts, it becomes easier to forgive Scrooge and believe in his redemption.
The Ghost of Christmas Present, played by Julie Valenzuela, is a dynamic delight. She makes a raucous entrance after playing the theater’s organ, then romps around the stage, spreading good cheer. The contrast is chilling when she reveals, hidden behind her jolly exterior, the children of Want and Ignorance.
Making his third appearance as the unearthly specter Jacob Marley, Remy Kayal gives another powerful performance. Crawling from the depths of the underworld, thanks to special effects, Marley hurls his chains into the air as he roars out his dire warnings. At another point, he admonishes Scrooge for not making mankind his business. Scary and intimidating, yes, but equally remorseful and despondent.
The continued addition of the street urchins among the cast of nearly 100 is inspired, not only because of the exuberance that the young performers provide, but also because they help set the mood by replicating the chaotic street life of 19th Century London.
Once again, Will Morris gets much-deserved praise for his costume, set and lighting design. His proper mid-Victorian costumes are visually interesting, but not distracting. The set’s basic structure and muted coloring capture the sense of gloom that is Scrooge’s life without being overwhelming. Dramatic lighting enhances whatever mood is envisioned in any given scene, from the eerie glow of the supernatural to the radiance of a Christmas feast. The absence of light is also used effectively. To quote Scrooge: “Darkness is cheap, and I like it.”
“A Christmas Carol” is a touching and timeless story, with messages of forgiveness and redemption, along with a compelling reminder that the weak, destitute and downtrodden are still with us.
Tickets: Civic Theater box office, 527 N. 19th St., Allentown; civictheatre.com; 610-432-8943