Credit: T. Charles Erickson
“A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas” at Hartford Stage is a holiday tradition Christmases past and present and without a doubt many yet to come.
There wasn’t much different about the staging of “A Christmas Carol” this year after an overhaul of the costumes, effects and lighting a couple years ago. But that’s the beauty of tradition. It’s something to look forward every year. You might wonder why you’d want to see a show that’s essentially the same as the year before, but when you think about it, that’s why we watch Christmas movies every year that will never change. We love the lines, stories and characters and they stick with us. But even when a theater production is “the same,” there are variances in the casting, acting choices, line deliveries and character chemistry that can make a show fresh. And with it being live you never know what to expect! You can also watch the same show and notice new nuances every time. For me, this time, I was paying more attention to the dancing.
In fact, some of the things I love about “A Christmas Carol” at Hartford stage are the things that usually never (and shouldn’t) change. It’s the story of the classic Dickens tale of an old miserly bachelor, who is selfish about money and doesn’t keep Christmas in his heart, who is visited by four spirits for a chance to correct his path toward an early death and afterlife of chains and misery with the visits of four spirits. And this version resonates in our hearts.
First and foremost is Bill Raymond (who also played the Speaker of the House in “Lincoln” and was in “Gypsy” on Broadway with Patti Lapone). He is the heart and soul of “A Christmas Carol” as Scrooge (or as they fondly call him throughout the show, “the wicked ‘ol Screw”). Even though he plays a grumpy, Christmas-loathing miser, he is consistently the character that makes me laugh the most. What’s remarkable about Raymond is his instinct for comedic timing and playing off the audience’s reactions, especially what he does when he’s not speaking, from an accentuated hip thrust to get an achy older man down the stairs to voicing light saber sound effects during a drunken cider-fueled pretend sword fight with a ghost.
Another favorite moment is when he locks multiple padlocks to conceal the money in his desk only to have to unlock them all again when Bob Cratchit (Robert Hannon Davis) has to give him his wages. Oh, and the feather-dusting scene with Mrs. Dilber (Noble Shropshire).
Raymond gives Scrooge layers from bumbling, senile and quirky to sharp and judgmental to bitter and greedy to lovable and funny. He also knows which lines to emphasize and is tactful about his delivery. Lines like “dead as a doornail” and the string of similes after his ghostly visits (“merry as a schoolboy,” “giddy as a drunken man,” et cetera) are ones we remember from the original story. From repeating “dead” over and over to not overplaying the similes contrary to frequent interpretations and instead rattling through them like they’re toss away lines, Raymond breathes his own unique take on the words his character is given. From his laughs and expressions to his dainty, sprightly way of moving about the stage, I always look forward to soaking in every moment of Raymond’s Scrooge.
The year he stops doing “A Christmas Carol,” well let’s hope that day doesn’t come for awhile.
Noble Shropshire is the other audience favorite, double-cast as Mrs. Dilber and Jacob Marley. I adore him as Mrs. Dilber, whose sarcasm and humor is a highlight and who draws a lot of laughs as a man playing a woman. He seemed scarier than ever before as Scrooge’s late business partner Jacob Marley, flying in a scene involving dancing spirits emerging from a trap door flooded with red lights and fog that has always stuck with me since I was seeing this show as a child. His versatility and chemistry with Raymond make him another staple cast member we want to return annually.
The actors playing the three spirits double-cast as marketplace workers indebted to Scrooge — Johanna Morrison (doll vender Bettye Pidgeon/Spirit of Christmas Past/beggar woman), fruit and cider vender Alan Rust (Bert/Spirit of Christmas Present) and Michael Preston (Mr. Marvel and, we think, Spirit of Christmas Future) — are also highlights who bring true team spirit to the production.
Robert Hannon Davis (Bob Cratchit) is another veteran in the production whose acting prowess stands out. He plays the straight man to Raymond’s sometime eccentric Scrooge that makes it possible for the comedy to play well against his calm and pleasant but serious demeanor.
The show has a talented ensemble and even characters with minor roles have shining moments. I always love watching the games at Fred’s party in Scrooge’s tour with the Spirit of Christmas Present. Alex Setterini drew a lot of laughs as the nervous, awkward young bachelor, Mr. Topper, who seems to put his foot in his mouth with the ladies. The young lady who he is arranged to play “I Love My Love With an A” with contrasts his character with outgoing, giggly energy that makes the two play well off each other.
Casting is something that’s indeed well-thought out in this production. This year brought a new actor — Terrell Donnell Sledge — in to play the usually double-cast role of Scrooge’s merry nephew Fred and Scrooge at 30. Sledge brought a lot of energy and cheer to both roles at the appropriate moments, including a hilarious moment where he sneaks up on his uncle and pinches him in the rear.
I will say that I was admittedly distracted through a lot of the show by the directing team’s choice to have a black man play young adult Scrooge when the youngest and oldest Scrooges in the show are both white. I wanted so badly not to notice it, but I got distracted by the logic of biology. It was clear this casting decision was made for a reason, so before I wrote my review, I reached out to the directing team to get context for the choices they made.
The answer was very admirable. Associate Director Rachel Alderman said that the directing team always employs “color-blind casting,” also known as non-traditional casting, in the Hartford Stage rendition of “A Christmas Carol.” It’s the philosophy that anyone can play any character regardless of his or her race, counting on the audience to look past race and looks and see the character for the character. Alderman said it’s also a way of giving the story a fresh spin that appeals to a modern-day perspective and welcoming diversity into the show. She said that particularly reflects the Hartford community where the theater is located that is made up of people of different ethnicities.
The production also includes a lot of child actors and the “color-blind casting” allows more children from varying backgrounds and ethnicities to partake in the production. You’ll often notice diversity in the Cratchit family, for instance.
Alderman also pointed out that this is a ghost story. So, it’s the idea that a spirit can have different vessels if you will. Scrooge can really live on in any ethnicity when you think about it. It’s about the spirit of the actors, not their looks.
Speaking of looks, the visuals in Hartford Stage’s “A Christmas Carol” are always festively stunning. The entrances of the ghosts really are like scenes from a movie or portraits. Spirit of Christmas Past’s entrance on the sleigh through the white fog as snow falls is beautiful and Spirit of Christmas Present’s glittery float with two children poised on either corner as apparent cherubs sparkled. There was one moment when he knocked off one of the children’s halos accidentally, but the child maintained focus and didn’t break character, a tough skill when something goes wrong in live theater and impressive at such a young age.
The Christmas tree for the party that turns into curtain call also closes a heartwarming story and gets us in the spirit for the holidays.
The choreographed spirits in glowing white Victorian-style costumed accessorized with deadly weapons is a signature part of this show and adds to the ambience of the ghost story (don’t use the floor exit, you might run into a ghost).
The lighting effects are spectacular from the shadow casting outlines of windows in Scrooge’s counting house to the lights casting clock shapes onto the floor to represent the motif of time.
One challenge the actors face in this production is that most of them have to speak without microphones and project. For the most part it works in the small theater and gives it a raw quality that makes it relatable. It was hard to hear the quiet voice of the child actor playing Tim Cratchit (Norah Girard or Max McGowan) on opening night Friday, Dec. 4. The placement of Tiny Tim in a chair that had its back to the audience may have contributed to that, but the child actor was so adorable that it didn’t ruin anything.
The only other criticism I had was more of a writing observation about the script. When the Spirit of Christmas Present pulls back his robe to reveal Ignorance and Want, the two children, there’s not much preamble into their significance and the big reveal of those symbolic characters is not as jarring and shocking as it is in the movie. Maybe there was a reason for that, but it just made it a little more random that they were there. It wasn’t a glaring issue, so that’s more of an observation of personal preference that won’t make or break the performance.
Alderman said that the directing team valued keeping with the integrity of the adaptation and staging by original director Michael Wilson. And it seems like they have been able to maintain that for the 18 years this production has run during the holiday season.
Maxwell Williams directed this show, choreography was done by Hope Clarke, Ken Clark was the music director, Tony Straiges oversaw scenic design, Alejo Vietti and Zack Brown did the costume design, Robert Wierzel did the lighting design and John Gromada did the original music and sound design.
“A Christmas Carol” runs through Dec. 27. Weeknight and evening performances start at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Sunday and select weekday matinees start at 2 p.m. There’s also a sensory-friendly performance on Tuesday, Dec. 8 at 7 p.m. that welcomes “families of children with autism or other disabilities that create sensory sensitivities,” according to a release from the Hartford Stage. For more information on the production and tickets, visit www.hartfordstage.org/christmas-carol or call the box office at 860-527-5151.