By CB Adams
Remember that commercial from the late 80s with the tagline, “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile?” The Repertory Theatre of St Louis’s production of “A Christmas Carol” is kinda like that. This is not your father’s, or grandmother’s (or your crazy Aunt Millie’s) adaptation of this Dickensian tale of Ebenezer Scrooge’s war on Christmas. As you survey St. Louis’s rich assortment of holiday offerings (and there truly is a cornucopia that runneth over), this production entices with a shiny, progressive reboot of this Christmas chestnut.
It’s a new spin on “A Christmas Carol” that’s perfect for those with short attention spans. This adaptation treats the story of Scrooge’s transformation as the plain evergreen upon which the shiny baubles of scenic design (Tim Mackabee), lighting and projections (Seth Reiser and Hana S. Kim), costumes (Dede Ayite), choreography (Kirven Douthit-Boyd) and hip hop choreography (Robert Crenshaw) are hung. Bringing youthful energy to the production are the Webster University conservatory cast, the Big Muddy Dance Company dancers, whose ghost dancers add much to certain key scenes, and a youth ensemble from the Center of Creative Arts.
By flattening the well-known story line whose lead character has been represented by everyone and everything from Alastair Sim and Michael Caine to Bill Murray and Mr. Magoo, this adaptation by Michael Wilson (the same as last year’s) embellishes the story of Scrooge’s transformation with new characters and scenes not in the Dickens novel.
Upon each of the story’s key moments – Marley’s appearance, visits by the three Spirits, the Cratchit family’s penury, etc. – director Hana S. Sharif hangs contemporary dance numbers, special effects and humorous asides among all the dark, dank Victoriana. The dance is an especially effective component of this adaptation; the inconsistent use of modern colloquialisms – not so much.
The result is a Whitman’s Sampler of a production that tries too hard to provide a little something for every taste. And like that holiday box, there’s all sorts of chocolates, including a rap-infused “O Come All Ye Faithful,” a Marley who flies up from beneath the stage like a spectral Peter Pan, a dance number that includes The Worm, and a Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come that’s part-Mad Max, part-Blade and part-Gimp from “Pulp Fiction.”
The latter makes his NFL-inspired entrance complete with hoverboard and ravers glasses. This ghost’s entrance is certainly impressive but calls too much attention to itself and pulls you out of the story. It also undercuts the emotional impact of Scrooge recognizing his tombstone – the climax of the story.
The same holds true for the final scene (not in Dickens’s original) with Scrooge hosting a party. This is a well-intentioned addition that hopes to highlight the new, improved Scrooge, but which borrows too much from the final scene in the “White Christmas” movie. It also weakens the intent of Dickens to use this story to examine the plight of the disadvantaged. As Scrooge promises the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, “I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach!”
Sharif adds another complexity to this production by double casting of most of the key roles. It was fun (and impressive) to see the way Laakan McHardy played both a doll seller and the Ghost of Christmas Past (the best of the portrayals of the spirits) and Paul Aguirre went from a refreshments vendor to a vampy, over-the-top Christmas Present. Michael James Reed also played double duty as Mrs. Dilber (Scrooge’s housekeeper with shades of “Mrs. Doubtfire”) and the spectral Jacob Marley – how’s that for range!
The roles of Scrooge and Bob Cratchit are played by Guiesseppe Jones and Armando McClain, respectively. McClain provides one of this production’s best and most consistent and balanced portrayals as the long-suffering Cratchit. Ultimately, “A Christmas Carol” hinges on the portrayal of Scrooge. Jones displays an impressive range, which he definitely needs in this adaptation that pivots (sometimes to distraction) from lightheartedly humorous to full-on King Lear-level theatricality. As impressive as Jones was in all his scenes, his performance was often too self-contained and lacked chemistry with the other actors.
Overall, this production is designed with lots of wow-factors to defy you to call it anything but bah-humbug. The success of this approach depends on how you like your Scrooge served up. If you’re seeking the more traditional, ye merry ole England version (I remember one from my youth that included real basset hounds on stage), this isn’t that. To its credit, this adaptation avoids the saccharin Timmy-fell-down-the-well savior sub-narrative of so many other productions. And, it brings a modern sensibility to this timeless, still all-too-relevant story.
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents “A Christmas Carol” November 19–December 30 at the Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road, St. Louis. For tickets or more information, visit: www.repstl.org.
CB Adams is an award-winning fiction writer and photographer based in the Greater St. Louis area. A former music/arts editor and feature writer for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, his non-fiction has been published in local, regional and national publications. His literary short stories have been published in more than a dozen literary journals and his fine art photography has been exhibited in more than 40 galley shows nationwide. Adams is the recipient of the Missouri Arts Council’s highest writing awards: the Writers’ Biennial and Missouri Writing!. The Riverfront Times named him, “St. Louis’ Most Under-Appreciated Writer” in 1996.