Actors Theatre of Louisville opened its 37th production of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” last night. Actors Theatre’s show is the second longest-running production in the country (the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis has them beat by a year), and while small changes happen from year to year, Actors doesn’t mess with what works—solid acting paired with lovely music, a liberal dose of humor and the cozy familiarity of a timeless redemption story well-told.
Directed by Drew Fracher, “A Christmas Carol” stars William McNulty in his 11th year as Ebenezer Scrooge, the miserly tycoon who gets one last chance at redemption thanks to the spirits of Christmases past, present and yet to come.
The show brings back familiar faces year after year, not the least of which is McNulty himself, who has been playing a variety of “Carol” roles for more than two decades. Joining him are Actors Theatre and “Carol” veterans V Heidenreich as the narrator and Ann Hodapp as Mrs. Grigsby, as well as more recent additions to the cast like “A Christmas Story” star Larry Bull as Marley’s ghost (Spoiler: Marley was dead as a doornail!), Geoff Rice as the preternaturally good-natured Bob Cratchit and former acting apprentice and “Dracula” star Marianna McClellan as Scrooge’s lost love Belle and Nephew Fred’s wife. Ghosts of Christmases Past (the acrobatic Lindsey Noel Whiting) and Present (David Ryan Smith, whose voice and presence are big as the season itself) have also been featured in past productions—the list goes on. Even Lincoln Elementary second graders Alec and Brad DeLaney, evidently the most adorable moppets on the Louisville performing arts scene, reprise their roles as Tiny Tim “God Bless us, everyone!” Cratchit.
The design team is a Who’s Who at Actors as well—Matt Callahan’s sound, Paul Owen’s iconic set, Brian Lillienthal’s lights and Lorraine Venberg’s gorgeous costumes. Seeing so many familiar faces on stage and behind the scenes really emphasizes what a family affair “A Christmas Carol” is, not only for the generations of Louisvillians who attend with their parents and own children, but for the company as well.
Newcomers to the cast hold their own, though, especially Andy Gaukel, who plays both of the show’s funniest characters, Scrooge’s nephew Fred and Mr. Fezziwig, the jocular party host of Christmases past who gave Scrooge his start in business. Gaukel’s levity provides the perfect counterweight to Scrooge’s contempt and dogged unhappiness in the past and the present, and when (this is a spoiler for the three people reading who haven’t at least seen an adaptation of the tale, from “The Muppets’ Christmas Carol” to “Scrooged”) Ebenezer repents and starts throwing love and money at the world and his family, it’s plain that Fred’s jolly sense of humor is an inherited trait.
The cast offers a slate of traditional English carols throughout the production under the direction of music supervisor David Keeton (Townsperson/Grasper), a change that began a few years ago that will drag you right into the Christmas spirit if you weren’t already there when the lights came up on Owen’s period London. Overall, the production offers few surprises, but that’s fine—Scrooge’s redemption journey works because we know it well, and watching his transformation is less tradition than ritual, a performance we engage with as much for the comfort and meaning of the act of doing so as the outcome.
“A Christmas Carol” runs through December 23.