To call a theatrical production “lavish” is an easy cliché.
But if you want to know just how sumptuous a show can get, visit Princeton’s McCarter Theatre Center and treat yourself to a glimpse of their new “A Christmas Carol.” It’s a gilded, velvet-lined jewel box of a show that you absolutely should not miss.
The McCarter has been celebrating the holiday season with a staging of the Dickens classic for decades, but last year the company decided to mount an entirely new production. Not satisfied with what they came up with in 2016, this year they have revised that show, spending as much on new effects and additions as they normally would on a whole new production, according to a theater spokesman.
Every penny is on the stage, and the result is lovely.
I think I would have been delighted and entertained if this show had been presented simply as a series of tableaus, frozen and silent, the better to take in Linda Cho’s beautiful semi-Victorian costumes (Cho, fresh off her Tony win for “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” uses more glitter than was likely customary in the 1800s) and the towering, elaborate set by Daniel Ostling — the designer behind Broadway shows, opera productions staged around the world, and the creative genius who helped Mary Zimmerman set “Metamorphoses” in a swimming pool in the early Aughts.
There are scenes here — particularly those involving Fred, Scrooge’s jolly nephew, and Fezziwig, his even jollier former employer — that feel like Currier and Ives prints come to giddy life, or animated Victorian Christmas cards, lushly detailed down to the ribbon on miles of garland. Others moments dive into the fact that “A Christmas Carol” is, after all, a ghost story, and play up the wondrous and weird. There’s a massive wooden staircase that spins unexpectedly across the stage, and gleaming, spectral Ghosts of Christmas Future loom out of every darkened aisle and corner of the theater in the penultimate scene.
Special effects designer Jeremy Chernick makes delicate additions: Projections of London’s cityscape behind the Cratchit home give the scene dimension and anchor it in the shadow of St. Paul’s Cathedral. A candle blows out with a spray of firework sparks to herald the arrival of the Ghost of Christmas Past, who is literally lit up from within (presumably with LED lights, although I was too busy enjoying the effect to puzzle out how it was achieved).
A snow globe — an anachronistic addition Dickens never imagined — plays a central role in this retelling of the old story, and in the final scene, Scrooge and Tiny Tim are made to appear to be standing inside one. It’s a beautiful touch.
“Magical” is another easy word to use to describe the theater, but this production earns it.
Seeing the work of theatrical artisans at the top of their game, set loose to play in a winter wonderland, would be enough to make “A Christmas Carol” worth seeing. But in addition to all that gorgeous Christmas wrapping, there are great performances here, too.
Those start the moment you enter the theater, with McCarter’s “community ensemble” of local actors in costume singing carols and chatting with you as you walk in. They wander into the theater with you, then meander onto the stage to sing again, urging the audience to join in. Once everyone is caroling at the top of their lungs, Greg Wood stomps in, in character as Scrooge, yelling at actors and audience alike as he makes his way into the offices of Scrooge and Marley. Suddenly the play has begun, with the audience drafted into the role of the carolers outside Scrooge’s door who annoy him so much. It’s a neat device.
Wood clearly relishes this role; he finds much more humor in the part than the average humbug, which makes his post-conversion scenes particularly enjoyable.
But while he grumps and rages to comic effect, the secondary characters give the show heart. Mimi Francis is imperious and charming as the Ghost of Christmas Present. Thom Sesma is a riotous Fezziwig, and Sue Jin Song as Scrooge’s beleaguered housekeeper Mrs. Dilber makes a small role memorable with her elastic eyebrows and anguished expressions.
Jon Norman Schneider is an especially calm and affecting Bob Cratchit, and Jessica Bedford is an excellent foil for him as the alternately furious and frightened Mrs. Cratchit.
Although the entire cast speaks with an English accent for this production and the setting is specified as 1843 London, the casting is colorblind; many African-American, Asian and Latin actors are featured in speaking roles in the large ensemble. It doesn’t change the story at all, but it underlines how universal Dicken’s message is. The struggling Cratchits could be anyone’s family; Tiny Tim, anyone’s child. And we all neglect our neighbors at our peril.
The McCarter has done a marvelous job of updating this most familiar of holiday tales. If you’ve been nice this year — and you have, haven’t you? — you really deserve a ticket to go see it.
“A Christmas Carol” will be at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton through Dec. 31; visit mccarter.org.
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