Gillian Williams

A Christmas Present

Review of A Christmas Carol at Hartford Stage First of all, full disclosure: I’m an A Christmas Carol enthusiast. Annually, “at this festive season of the year,” I watch Scrooge, the 1951 film starring Alastair Sims. And, depending upon circumstances, I sometimes manage viewings of the remake starring George C. Scott, and the charming cartoon version featuring Jim Backus as Mr. Magoo, and I’ll no doubt catch Bill Murray in the edgier Eighties update, Scrooged! I’ve also read the novella aloud several times and will gladly do so at the drop of a hat—preferably a Dickensian topper. The transformation of the world’s most famous miser into a benevolent figure full of good will is one of my favorite stories. What’s more, it’s a great ghost story too.

Others must feel the same way, which is why Michael Wilson’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic—generally called “immortal”—is enjoying its 17th seasonal production at Hartford Stage, directed by third-time director, and Associate Artistic Director, Maxwell Williams. Indeed, it’s the sort of production that has no doubt become a holiday tradition for many in the Hartford area.

Begin with Bill Raymond—who you might know from The Wire where he played “The Greek,” but who I remember as a drunken, irascible Santa in The Ref (another seasonal favorite)—as Ebenezer Scrooge. Raymond has a lock on this part at Hartford Stage and it’s fun to watch him vary his rhythms and reactions in a role that many of us could probably recite along with him. His Scrooge is more cantankerous than mean, a crotchety cuss who likes to mock well-meaning folk and dismiss heartfelt effusions. He—and maybe you know the feeling—simply has no patience with his fellowman any longer. But he’s also, and this Raymond gets across well, very self-satisfied . . . until those ghosts start puncturing his insularity. Then we watch him start questioning everything he thought he’d made up his mind about.

And this production, while keeping the three Ghosts—of Past, Present, and Future—mostly as Dickens conceived them, also throws at Scrooge a battery of skull-headed ghosts, lit with funhouse colors, that put a touch of Tim Burton into the proceedings. And Noble Shropshire, airborne and woebegone, makes for a great Marley, brandishing those chains he “forged in life” as though a lifeline keeping him tethered to the world. One of Dickens’ great ideas was the notion that cashboxes on chains would be the fetters of the man of business once his truck with the corporal world was done, and seeing Marley thus chained to the stage brings that idea home.

Wilson’s adaptation adds a touch of Wizard of Oz wherein three debtors Scrooge encounters on Christmas Eve are transformed into the ghosts who haunt his night. Johanna Morrison plays plaintive Bettye Pidgeon, a vendor of antique dolls, who becomes, arrayed in a vast sleigh, a matronly Ghost of Christmas Past, while Alan Rust plays a whimsical vendor of treats who becomes, in eye-popping finery, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and Michael Preston plays Mr. Marvel, a comical vendor of gadgets and notions who may or may not become the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, who arrives atop a steam-machine cycle. From each vendor, Scrooge grabs a prop by way of payment—antique doll, bottle of cheer, steam-driven clock—that dovetail with what the night holds in store. It’s a narrative device that helps to give motivation to all Scrooge’s encounters, and this is a show that, with its wide open space serving to support a lot of movement, recreates Dickens’ world as a world of meetings in the street.

But all that set-up does make the First Part of the show slower and a bit more expository than the Second Part, and the segments in the Past aren’t perhaps as chastening as they might be, though the Fezziwigs (Charlie Terrell and Rebecka Jones) are as lively as we’d hope and the parting between Ebenezer (Curtis Billings) and his beloved Belle (Gillian Williams) adds a dramatic focus amid the many comings and goings. Part Two is more concerned with what’s happening inside Scrooge; it features a very lively and enjoyable Victorian dinner party, that acts as a set-piece for holiday gatherings, at the home of Scrooge’s nephew (Billings again, who plays both the warmhearted Fred and the fatuous “Scrooge at 30” with a deft sense of presence, much as the lovely Williams, as both Belle and Fred’s wife lets Scrooge contemplate his nephew's life as what might have been his own happier life).

The costumes are all quite becoming and sumptuous, and the production’s many child actors charming in their roles as urchins and ghostly companions. At times Wilson’s script keeps faithful to the 1951 movie version—retaining the use of “Barbara Allen,” one of the loveliest tunes ever written—and at other points interacts with well-known wording in Dickens’ original, such as that bit about “dead as a doornail.” The play’s ending eschews the alternate endings of most filmed productions—either Scrooge springing his new self on Cratchit when the latter returns to work the day after Christmas (Dickens’ ending), or at the Cratchit’s home where he calls with his new found good cheer—in favor of Scrooge hosting a get-together of his own, after touching base with everyone he had oppressed on Christmas Eve. The change makes sense since “sets” in this busy production tend to consist of one or two handsome devices, such as Scrooge’s magnificent fourposter bed with canopy and curtains, or the cramped little table shared by all the Cratchits—with Robert Hannon Davis, a suitably buoyant Bob Cratchit.

All in all it’s an entertaining production that, no matter how familiar you may be with the story, offers much visual attraction, many lively vignettes, lots of capable touches and, at its heart, a mercurial character who, through a critical retrospective on his own life, comes to see a reason to change for the better. And, as the voice at the end of the 1951 film says, “may that be said of all of us.”


A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas By Charles Dickens, adapted and originally directed by Michael Wilson Directed by Maxwell Williams

Choreographer: Hope Clarke; Scenic Design: Tony Straiges; Costume Design: Alejo Vietti; Lighting Design: Robert Wierzel; Original Music and Sound Design: John Gromada; Original Costume Design: Zack Brown; Wig Designer: Brittany Hartman; Flying Effects: ZFX, Inc.; Music Director: Ken Clark; Associate Set Designer: Catherine Chung; Associate Lighting Designer: Robert W. Henderson, Jr.; Production Stage Manager: Martin Lechner; Assistant Stage Manager: Kelly Hardy; Youth Director: Kristy Chambrelli; Dramaturg: Elizabeth Williamson; Production Manager: Bryan T. Holcombe

Hartford Stage November 28-December 28, 2014