The version of “A Christmas Carol” that is currently being presented by the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Madison is an unusually musical one. And I don’t say that just because familiar Christmas carols are woven into the production. Director Brian B. Crowe, working with Neil Bartlett’s 1994 adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic, has actors portraying bells tolling, clocks ticking, even electric lights buzzing.
“Shoe off, shoe off, slipper on, slipper on,” Scrooge intones to himself, early on, after he comes home from work, giving us a clue as to how dreary his life has become: He’s just grimly going through the motions, and not really living.
Similarly, his clerks give voice to the the drudgery he imposes on them, rhythmically muttering “scratch, scratch, scratch” as they write.
With most of the characters playing multiple roles, and the dialogue tending to be brief exchanges among characters, not long speeches, this is a production that draws you into its fast-moving flow, and packs a lot of action and amusement into its two hours and 15 minutes (with one intermission).
It’s got some good special effects, including an eerie entrance for the Marley’s Ghost, and a scarily supernatural spin on the Ghost of Christmas Future. Of course, it’s also got a joyful, uplifting resolution.
Just a very solid production, all the way around.
Veteran Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey ensemble member Ames Adamson is excellent as Scrooge. He renders him as utterly heartless and ferociously irascible at first — appropriately enough for a character who, when asked to make a contribution to help those who have no place to live, spits out, “Are there no prisons?” But as the play proceeds, Adamson lets bits of humanity poke through, slowly, until Scrooge absolutely rejoices in his rebirth.
Clark Scott Carmichael projects everyman goodness as the play’s second most important character, Scrooge’s employee Bob Cratchit, whose warm family life stands in utter contrast to the emptiness of Scrooge’s life. Carmichael also is responsible, in another role, for the show’s big comic surprise (which I won’t reveal here).
All of the actors in the 10-person cast, except for Adamson, play multiple roles. Bartlett sees it as “essential,” in fact, that the person playing Scrooge is only Scrooge. He wrote in 2014 that Scrooge …
… is, after all, a man with no imagination, and an iron-bound miserliness of both word and gesture. Around him, the rest of the company should — with complete disregard for size, accent, gender or colour — be free to mischievously quick-change their way through all of the other roles. The effect of this division between those-who-transform and he-who-doesn’t is simple, but profound — in fact, it’s the essential engine of the script. It means that not just the story but the very way it is being told on stage goads, provokes, surprises and finally shocks Scrooge into rejoining the human race …
You probably know this story well. But this production’s take on it is a fresh one, and its musical qualities — and all-around liveliness — make it an ideal first “Christmas Carol” for younger attendees, as well.
The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey at Drew University in Madison presents “Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol” through Dec. 29. Visit shakespearenj.org.
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