Dallas — A hardened Scrooge, made bitter by loss of family and love, sees the light of redemption once more in a night of revelation and heart-wrenching memories in Dallas Theater Center’s A Christmas Carol, adapted to an immersive 90-minute haunting by DTC Artistic Director Kevin Moriarty from Charles Dickens’ ever-relevant 19th century novella.
The show, featuring a cast of 30 adult and child actors, has become a popular tradition for many families, who return each year to see the familiar tale given a fresh vision with a new director and cast. Tiffany Nichole Greene, a rising young director from Houston who works all over the country and is now resident director of the national Hamilton tour that comes to Dallas Summer Musicals this spring. She brings a startling reality to the magical ghost story, which features DTC company member Alex Organ as a scarred, acerbic Scrooge, refusing to acknowledge in the slightest the pain and ugliness brought on by the greed he lives by.
From the opening salvos of industrial rumblings and smoke rising from the fiery furnaces of Scrooge’s dark, smoky factory, Greene surrounds us with workers, adults and children alike, climbing ladders and running up the steps, their arms and legs straining beneath huge wooden boxes and heavy metal buckets.
Greene uses Beowulf Boritt’s three-tiered atmospheric set to speed a scene of domestic joy into one of abject poverty, or to pop a terrifying ghost (a stooped and hideously grizzled Drew Wall) out of a warm bed to scare the daylights out of Scrooge and all of us. The vivid contrasts of joyful dancing games and ruthless business deal shocks and exhilarates. And her keen focus on the wit and toughness of the working poor, via the loving and scrappy Cratchit family, makes us remember our own struggling neighbors, as well as those at our country’s borders. After the show, we’re glad to make a donation in the lobby to the North Texas Food Bank. Over the past 10 A Christmas Carol productions, DTC has contributed more than $600,000 to this regional effort to feed the hungry.
Under Moriarty’s leadership, DTC has promoted racial and gender diversity in casting, with the critically acclaimed performance of Sally Nystuen Vahle as a brittle, bottom-line Scrooge in the 2016 production. Green’s casting follows that interesting prescription. First of all, Organ, who has played virtually all the major roles in the show, is not an old man. You’d never know it, however. In the opening scenes his tall, rigid body and tight-lipped mouth convey the very face of a lifetime of determined money-grubbing. When asked for a Christmas donation, his eyes are cold and his voice colder, as he replies, “I can’t afford to keep idle people merry.”
Only very gradually, as he sees himself in the schoolroom as a deserted, motherless child does Organ’s Scrooge show a tinge of emotion. The heat of human feeling slowly fills his face and body, as he looks on scene after scene in his redemptive journey, led by the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Future. Here, too, Green has some delightful fun with the casting, each one a revealing surprise for an audience jolted into the moment by a bright choice sharp performance for a ghost or an urchin.
One revealing shift in this year’s production exemplifies many such decisions. The Ghost of Christmas past, played by shimmering Cara Serber, appears as Scrooge’s mother, who died giving birth to him. This character now mirrors and helps explain Scrooge’s rejection of his only living family member, not the traditional nephew but a niece, (sparkling Amber Rossi), whose mother, our miser’s beloved sister, died giving birth to her. Over and again, we see the sadness that brought Scrooge to his isolated, cold-hearted state.
The ensemble performance is solid throughout. Ace Anderson is a willing worker and bashful beau as young Scrooge, clearly grateful for the generosity and high spirits of his master Mr. Fezziwig, played by Brian Mathis with a happy pirate’s wild abandon in his stomping jigs with Mrs. Fezziwig, a flirty, feisty Sarah Gay. One marvelously touching moment happens suddenly when a dispirited Belle (Tiffany Solano DeSeno) walks away from her fiancé forever. Organ and Anderson shout Belle, at once, their voices cracking together.
Jahi Kearse and company member Tiana Kaye Blair as Bob Cratchit and Mrs. Cratchit, are especially strong in their realistic portraits of the hearthside joy and graveside grief of parents who work hard and make the best of a meager living wage. Their excellent performances give grit and weight to the whole production. Parker Gray and Deanna Ott are drop-dead hilarious together or apart.
All are merry and nimble, high-stepping and clapping to Jeremy Allen Dumont’s playful choreography and the shows lovely traditional dances and songs, led by musical director Vonda K. Bowling, abetted and enhanced by sound designer Brian McDonald. A hollow stage never sounded more like a grand drum.
Jen Caprio’s costumes are muted and dark in the early factory scenes, a startling contrast to the bright, bustled gowns of the dancing ladies at a festive party.
By the time we’ve whirled to a snow-falling, confetti-popping finish, we better understand that even the hardest heart can open to love and possibility. Ghosts are where we see them. Dallas Theater Center has told the tale again, and it feels immediate once more.