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Review: ‘A Christmas Carol’ by Dallas Theater Center

A Christmas Carol

Through Dec. 24

Wyly Theatre, Dallas




Posted 1:20pm on Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2013

Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas is well known to those who’ve seen annual adaptations at their local theater. They know the basic story of a miserly man who learns to embrace the spirit of Christmas thanks to four spirits, starting with the ghost of his late business partner Jacob Marley.

It’s a dark tale with frequent blooms of overwhelming joy, but it’s also an indictment of crass commercialization and capitalization, both spurred by the Industrial Revolution that preceded the book’s publication. No adaptation I’ve seen has captured all that complexity as starkly as the new production at the Dallas Theater Center, adapted and directed by artistic director Kevin Moriarty, and marking the title’s debut at the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Wyly Theatre.

This is the first new Christmas Carol for DTC since it debuted Richard Hellesen’s adaptation and moved the show to the Kalita Humphreys Theater, after the holiday tradition’s home for many decades, the Arts District Theater, was torn down in the mid-2000s to make way for AT&T PAC. If you remember Adrian Hall’s A Christmas Carol in that barn of a space in the 1980s, this version will bring back memories, even if one expects the technical capabilities of the Wyly to offer more exciting flying effects than what was captured in Hall’s version. (It doesn’t; as a high school student then, I’ll never forget Marley soaring so close to the audience that it was truly frightening.)

In terms of design, this production never lets us forget that this is “the age of the machine,” with Beowulf Boritt’s scenery of industrial pipes and steam-powered effects, plus the clanging of Broken Chord’s sound design and Jeff Croiter’s lighting and fog that evokes 19th-century London. Also, kudos to the designers of costumes (Jennifer Caprio), hair/wigs (Stephanie Williams) and makeup (Louise Zizzo), the latter of note for a zombie-esque Marley (Chamblee Ferguson, who does some flying with his feet still chained to earth).

Moriarty’s adaptation emphasizes this milieu, too, with lines about how “industry is rewarded” and the frequent presence of debt collectors and clinking coin boxes. Ebenezer Scrooge (Kieran Connolly) leads this charge. Usually portrayed as a cantankerous old man, here he’s something who instills a different kind of fear, one that hits home for people barely scraping by: the heartless boss and bean-counter of a factory that doesn’t care about its employees outside of work. Connolly does take advantage of chances to show deeper emotion in the flashbacks.

What’s amazing is that this out-front concept of capitalism-shaming doesn’t come at the cost of storytelling. Carols and folk songs propel the dialogue and action. In the spectacular Fezziwig scene, for instance, the boar’s head celebration is followed with a rousing chorus of Auld Lang Syne, and then those lyrics are reprised to devastating effect with the line “should auld acquaintance be forgot” as Belle (Susana Batres) tells Young Scrooge (Alex Organ) why she can’t marry him.

Sonny Franks, as Fezziwig, keeps the momentum going as bandleader and mandolin player (other actors bring out instruments, including banjo and double bass). As Mrs. Fezziwig, Liz Mikel nearly steals the show by using her most powerful instrument: her voice. (Mikel also plays a character often diminished in adaptations of this story, Scrooge’s maid Mrs. Dilber.)

Fitting all this into 90 minutes (with no intermission) means less time and character development for Bob Cratchit (Akron Watson) and Scrooge’s nephew Fred (Daniel Duque-Estrada) and their respective families, but the crucial scenes are there. The other three ghosts are nicely conceived, with Christmas Past (Ashlee Elizabeth Bashore) as Scrooge’s mother, and the youth of Christmas Present (alternated by Liam Taylor and Tristin Thomas) as a Peter Pan-like being who does the most flying in the show and might be the character Tiny Tim (Christena Adkins and Juan Luis Meza-Roman alternate) dreams about being if he weren’t confined to crutches. As for Christmas Yet-to-Come, no need spoiling that surprise.

In the early scenes and at the end, the performers narrate Dickens’ prose from all corners and levels of the thrust configuration. From the early warning that it’s important to understand that Marley was dead to final celebrating with a bowl of smoking bishop, it’s clear and concise storytelling with more to the message than we typically see in adaptations of the story. If you’re resisting going because you’ve seen it too many times before, shrug that off. You haven’t seen A Christmas Carol like this.

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