What the Dickens is going on around here? North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka is currently staging a relatively faithful version of Dickens' A Christmas Carol, and this coming weekend Dell'Arte opens A Commedia Christmas Carol, while Ferndale Repertory Theatre opens Oliver! - the musical version of Dickens' Oliver Twist. All while a "performance capture" version of A Christmas Carol is Disney's big holiday movie, evidently switching their Yuletide allegiance to Dickens from Lewis Carroll (who, astute theatergoers may remember, inspired another Christmas coincidence of shows at Dell'Arte and Ferndale in 2007.)
Of course the Dickens story has long been a part of every Christmas season, through innumerable film and TV versions as well as adorable school pageants. Mr. Scrooge and Tiny Tim, and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future are almost as familiar as Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. In an odd way, Scrooge has even become one of the Great Parts by which actors test their mettle: Ralph Richardson and Laurence Olivier played it, and more recently George C. Scott and Patrick Stewart. But the Alistair Sim 1951 film portrayal is still considered the gold standard of Scroogery. There have also been numerous animations and musical adaptations, mostly emphasizing its sentimental aspects, and therefore a few satires.
This was not the only Christmas story or scene that Dickens wrote, and some commentators suggest that his work defined many of the elements of what we now call a traditional Christmas. He even helped institutionalize the "white Christmas" expectation, despite the allegation that London gets snow at Christmas only slightly more often than Eureka.
All this may testify to the high quality of this story, while also masking it. A Christmas Carol has the Dickens mix that made his work so popular in its time and enduring afterwards: invisible artistry, rousing entertainment (he particularly liked ghost stories), heightened characters that edge around sentimentality, social conscience, and a story of redemption.
It is perhaps the social message that should resonate strongly in this troubled year. Scrooge's redemption is through re-balancing his attitudes: accepting joy as well as fear, and expanding the meaning of his life. As the ghost of his regretful business partner tells him, "Business!... The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!"
Using Romulus Linney's adaptation, NCRT sticks with the Dickens setting and story. Mercifully however, the actors do not attempt English accents. In the opening scenes of Scrooge in his dour office, one result is to suggest Melville's 19th century Wall Street, with Scrooge in black as a Puritan capitalist. (Some commentators also suggest direct American connections to Dickens' original tale, from how Americans celebrated Christmas to the conditions in a Pittsburgh prison Dickens visited.)
But all this is for my adult readers. The show itself is family entertainment. It is a brisk 90 minutes or so, with quick dialogue and a few effects to beguile children in the audience. But it's the children on stage who infuse the show with vitality. The clear star of the evening is Dorian DeNisi as Tiny Tim, with other children and young actors providing the energy and feeling central to the most affecting scenes. These actors include Kelly Hughes, Alex Sutter, Meghan Walsh, Allyson Boltzen, Gaia DeNisi, Careyanna Adams, Alexandra Gellner and Isak Brayfindley.
I can't predict the responses of children seeing it, but judging from opening night there were some laughs, and nothing that seemed too scary. Directed by Cynthia Brown, with a handsome open set by Daniel L. Lawrence, it seemed theatrically adequate holiday family fare. The featured actors speak their lines audibly, even when their backs are to the audience, and they present the story clearly. Dmitry Tokarsky is an imposing Scrooge who keeps the story moving ahead, but despite some tepid special effects, there is little actual drama in this production, and so not much joy in Scrooge's second chance.
Among those featured actors is Brian Walker as Bob Cratchit, Evan Needham as Scrooge's nephew, Bob Service as Marley's Ghost, Wanda Stapp as Mrs. Crachit, and Savannah McCauley, Deborah Salizzoni and Jennifer Trustem as the other ghosts. Ben Rowe, David Moore and Pam Service round out the cast, which does a lot of doubling that's sometimes confusing. Katie Pratt designed the lighting, Marcia Hutson the costumes, Cindy Brown the sound. A Christmas Carol is on stage weekends at NCRT until December 12.
Coming Up: Ferndale Rep's run of Oliver! begins this Friday (Nov. 27) and ends December 20. In between, Ferndale hosts holiday children's matinees of Rumpelstiltskin the first two weekends of December. Dell'Arte's annual Christmas show also opens Friday, at the Carlo Theatre, and begins its traditional local tour the following Monday, Nov. 30, at HSU's Van Duzer Theatre, and Tuesday, Dec. 1, at the Arkley Center in Eureka. Since it's A Commedia Christmas Carol, we'll be back writing like the Dickens next week.