CHARLES DICKENS’ A CHRISTMAS CAROL
By: Samuel L. Leiter
November 30, 2022: If you go to Show-Score.com, an online site for theatre reviews, you’ll find that, within the past few years alone, there have been at least 15 adaptations of Charles Dickens’s 1843 novel A Christmas Carol produced in New York. It has been on the stage, in one form or another, since its earliest days, even acted by Dickens himself, and has been a constant presence on radio, TV, and movies as well. Yet actors, writers, directors, and producers never seem to tire of it, and audiences continue to flock to each new iteration, making it perhaps the most adapted and popular literary creation in history.
There are presently three versions now on New York stages, with a fourth waiting in the wings, but I can’t imagine any could possibly be better than the one at Broadway’s Nederlander Theatre starring Jefferson Mays in an astonishing tour de force of histrionic versatility. Mays, who gained a Tony for playing 40 or so characters in 2003’s I Am My Own Wife, does much the same with this essentially one-man staging of A Christmas Carol, adapted by him with Susan Lyons and Michael Arden (who directed), and originally seen at L.A.’s Geffen Playhouse.
This is a faithful, fast-paced retelling of the classic in which a man, called the Mourner, dressed in period clothes of black top hat and morning coat, narrates the story of Ebenezer Scrooge. He, as the entire universe surely knows, is the bad-tempered, avaricious London businessman who, at Christmastime, mistreats his vastly underpaid clerk, Bob Cratchit, and dismisses the kind invitation to Christmas dinner of his nephew, Fred, with his trademark, “Bah. Humbug!” Of course, old Scrooge is about to learn his lesson, when, after being visited by the hauntingly horrific ghost of his long dead partner, Jacob Marley, and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, he realizes the error of his ways and is transformed from the spirit of cruel miserliness to that of gregarious generosity, especially when moved by the sight of Bob’s disabled, crutch-bearing child, Tiny Tim, whose name alone is a trigger for an easy tear or two.
With close to fifty characters present—some in just a line or two, others combining several persons in one (like the Three Miss Fezziwigs and the Six Young Followers)—you need an actor of protean capabilities to capture and make them visible, even if only in a flash. Mr. Mays is without question that actor, although he has two understudies, Peter Bradbury and Alex Mandell, who, if they ever get the chance, probably do surprisingly well themselves!
As directed by Mr. Arden, Mr. Mays never changes his costume (designed by Dane Laffrey) but simply manipulates it in ways that allow us to appreciate the image of who he’s creating at any one moment. Narrating in a posh, highly theatrical British accent that strongly suggests the elocutionary manner of a nineteenth-century melodrama star, Mr. May sharply shifts from role to role with vocal and physical alterations, his fluttering hands alone capable of depicting the presence of multiple children. I’m sure a few visitors unfamiliar with the story will now and then find themselves adrift, but for most this will be A Christmas Carol to savor, the way the Cratchits do their Christmas repast.
What helps make this effort even more extraordinary are the surrounding effects of scenery, lighting, projections, and sound. There may be only one actor on stage (there are actually two when a hulking Spectre [Danny Gardner] is seen), but this is a remarkably complex physical production that uses all the best features of modern stage technology—including a turntable—to embody Dickens’s world. For the most part, designer Dane Laffrey’s dank, dark Victorian walls, windows, staircases, and doors are shrouded in shadows created by the extraordinary lighting of Ben Stanton who conjures up a dim, foggy world where candlelight is the principal source of illumination, and even that suffering the bane of Scrooge’s frugality as a means of saving money. The sudden brightness of the final scene, set in a snowy graveyard, is a powerful effect, shifting the tone from gloomy doom to brilliant brightness.
And those projections by Lucy McKinnon! Like the one that places Mays in the center of a swirling, cyclone-like vortex, like something from a sci-fi flick, or those flame-like flares that surround the stage when the greenish Marley gets riled up. Not to be outdone are the explosive, eerie, and otherwise chillingly atmospheric sounds of Joshua D. Reid.
If you’ve somehow managed never to see a stage version of A Christmas Carol before, or are unfamiliar with it, you may have a little trouble following this one, but not enough to warrant skipping it. The narrative is gripping, Mr. Mays’s storytelling talent is formidable, and the production values are sensational. Give yourself a holiday season gift from one that has kept on giving for at least 180 years. I doubt you’ll find any humbug here.
A Christmas Carol
208 W. 41st Street, NYC
Through January 1, 2023
Photo credits A CHRISTMAS CAROL LIVE