By CB Adams
We are living in the age of the Christmas-industrial complex. Never before have we had such a wealth of holiday entertainments, from dancing sugar plum fairies to prancing Grinches. The slate of stage, film, television, radio and music options means you can curate a Christmas season experience exactly to your liking.
One franchise rules them all, Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” and one character from that novella, Ebenezer Scrooge, stands scowling above the holiday fray, waiting, not for his close-up, but his redemption.
So imagine the challenge faced by Charles Jones, the founder and creator of the Nebraska Theatre Caravan, as he adapted Dickens’ tale for the stage more than 40 years ago. The field of Christmas Carol interpretations was full even then, including several well-known films starring the likes of George C. Scott, Lionel Barrymore, Alastair Sim, Albert Finney and, ahem, even Jim Backus, to say nothing of later incarnations by Jim Carrey and Patrick Stewart. So there were plenty of ways to present “the wicked old screw.”
According to Jones’ own introduction, “I think of this adaptation and the production of “A Christmas Carol” as a masque. It is not a musical comedy.”
A masque, in case your theater history is a bit rusty, was a form of festive entertainment popular with the royals in 16th- and early 17th-century Europe. Masques were especially popular in Merry Old England, where they were considered among the highest art forms. The Puritans in the 1600s tried their Scroogely best to abolish masques, but they have persevered in one form or another to the present day.
This bit of history provides the key for Jones’ approach. It’s a bit like adapting the story of the Titanic – we all know the ship sinks in the end. The transformation of Scrooge from miser to magnanimous mensch has entered our cultural lexicon and shared imaginations.
There’s a reason this story has resonated from its publication in 1843 as well as a reason that Nebraska Theatre Caravan’s production of Jones’ adaptation has had a successful 40-year run. Although not a “musical comedy” by Jones’ definition, is certainly is music-filled and definitely played to lighter, comedic effect.
There’s nary a bleak Dickensian Victorian moment to be had during the play’s two acts. For instance, the Charity Men, who are usually presented as serious solicitors for charity, enter Scrooge’s place and request a donation with the buffoonery of Lauren and Hardy, though they are toned down in their appearance at the play’s conclusion.
One of the most successful aspects is the show’s pacing. As played by 23 actors in multiple roles, one scene moves swiftly into another – advantageous in our age of short attention spans. Andy Harvey as Scrooge carries the show with a solid supporting cast.
Special effects also move the story along and hold their own in comparison to those in the filmed adaptations, though the Ghost of Christmas Past’s spectral presence seemed, like Scrooge’s bed clothes, a bit frayed around the edges and in need of a refresh.
One of the highlights of this production is the seamless integration of traditional Christmas carols into the action. Especially noteworthy is “Dancing Day” and “Susanni” during the Fezziwig Warehouse scene, “The Holly and the Ivy” and “The Other Night” in the Cratchit home scene, and “The Polka” and “Greensleeves” during the festivities at Fred and Millie’s home.
If this production were a beer, it would be “Scrooge Lite.” Perhaps harkening to its heartland roots, it is a steak and potatoes adaptation – and a good value for the ticket price. This is not a bad thing for its intended, broad audience. It’s simple enough for children to follow along – and laugh along – and fulfilling enough for adults to enjoy the same things.
This production’s longevity is well-deserved and a popular choice – among so many – for some families who make it an annual event.
“A Christmas Carol” played at the Fox Theatre Dec. 6-9.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.