“A Christmas Carol” was a hit for Charles Dickens from its first publication in 1843, and remains a classic, beloved novel today. But for the few who don’t know the story, it’s about Ebenezer Scrooge, an old miser who cherishes wealth above all else, who gets a visit from a deceased business partner on Christmas Eve. The ghost hopes to save Scrooge’s soul from the heavy chains that will weigh him down for eternity. The saving of his soul takes the shape of three ghosts: Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet to Come. And, not to spoil the ending for you, but redemption comes into play.
At this time of year, it’s much more difficult to miss seeing some version of this story, than actually seeing it. Theaters across the country and the world perform “A Christmas Carol” year after year. It’s been adapted into several films, even through Disney and Muppet characters to reach a younger audience, and countless television shows have episodes where a character goes through a transformation after ghostly visits. It seems that it’s nearly impossible to find someone who hasn’t seen or heard this story in some telling of it, so what happens when the audience is just as familiar with the characters and the story as the actors? This is what I wondered as I walked into the Pamela Brown Theatre at Actors Theatre of Louisville to see their annual production of “A Christmas Carol”. The answer is found in a balance of spectacle and sincerity.
The spectacle comes to play in the ghosts themselves, the hugeness and otherworldliness of their costumes, acrobatic abilities and personalities. Christmas Past, played by Lindsey Noel Whiting, charms the audience just as much for her obvious excitement while reliving Scrooge’s past as in her aerial skills. And Ken Robinson is absolutely magnetic as the ghost of Christmas Present. Not a ghost, but Kara Mikula as Mrs. Fezziwig is a hilarious spectacle on her own.
Amidst all the spectacle throughout the play, though, there were several moments of sincerity, like Fred (Peter Hargrave) and his genuine want for his miserly uncle to have a merry Christmas. There was also the Cratchits and their ardent joy for their “feast” that so clearly is the scrapings of a family living in poverty, and, surprisingly, V. Reibel as the Narrator who’s delightfully captivated by the story she’s telling.
But the sincerity mostly lands on the shoulders of John G. Preston, who plays Ebenezer Scrooge. Preston, who’s now a familiar face to the Actors Theatre audience as he’s played Scrooge for a few years now, captures the character beautifully. He doesn’t play the part as a mean old bear, but a man who simply wants to be left alone; for some reason, no one will let him be. Preston’s heartbreak of seeing his long-dead sister Fan, or when he learns of the bleak future of Tiny Tim, has nothing to do with the spectacle, but shows a man who’s finally letting himself feel grief for the first time in years. With all the extravaganza going on around him, Preston remains grounded in the moment, without relying on the well-known story to back him up. He’s a troubled soul fighting an (hopefully) inevitable transformation. And, because of that, the audience laughs and cries with him as he experiences the newfound joy of Christmas.
There’s nothing new or surprising about this production. Antje Ellermann’s set nicely creates 19th century London, while remaining easily maneuvered to allow many playing areas. The moments of video, however, take away from some of the magic of the production. Kristopher Castle’s costumes help create beautiful tableaus and give the actors the ability to move. All in all, this isn’t a wild, new adaptation that’s meant to shock the audience, but a classic telling of a beautiful story, allowing the joy of Scrooge’s transformation the element that sticks with you long after it’s over.
But, if you’re like me and a bit skeptical of a show you’ve seen several times, give “A Christmas Carol” a chance. It’s entertaining and touching and if it doesn’t fill you with joy and excitement for the Christmas season, then maybe three ghosts need to be scheduled for a visit.
Fifth Third Bank’s “A Christmas Carol” is playing at Actors Theatre of Louisville through December 23. For tickets and showtimes, click here.