Dallas — Honestly, what’s left for a critic to say about A Christmas Carol? It’s an unavoidable cultural juggernaut. From practically the moment Charles Dickens’ novella was published in 1843 people were enthralled, and the story was instantly (and copyright infringing-ly) adapted by any number of theater companies without Dickens’ leave. There’s been countless film iterations, from the earliest lost version filmed in 1901, to Alistair Sims version in the 1950s, to George C. Scott’s 1984 adaption, and let’s not forget 1992’s The Muppet Christmas Carol. There’s even a TV miniseries coming to BBC and FX soon.
And that’s only the straight adaptations. Every sitcom and every cartoon has had its own themed episode. It’s practically unavoidable. How, then, is a theater company supposed to come up with any sort of fresh take on such well-trodden ground? This is Dallas Theater Center’s self-imposed annual challenge: a familiar tale with different performers and directors each year. They’ve been doing this with Artistic Director Kevin Moriarty’s adaptation, presented for the seventh consecutive year, perhaps inevitably in this political moment, taps into Dickens’ own sense of public outrage at the suffering of his fellow men. But, as always, there is the hope of redemption. Moriarty’s adaption, skillfully directed by Joel Ferrell with choreography by Jeremy Dumont and music direction by Vonda K. Bowling, and bursting with a talented, diverse cast, is its own Christmas miracle, breathing new life into this classic tale.
The play begins on an empty stage, where a young girl (Sabrina Daly) sings a Christmas song in the midst of a gloomy, three-tiered industrial nightmare of a factory (design by Beowulf Boritt) before being forced back into heavy labor along with her co-workers. This, then, is the “warehouse” of Scrooge & Marley, overseen by Ebenezer Scrooge (a convincingly cadaverous Brandon Potter) himself as he counts his money from his lofty perch above the warehouse floor. Moriarty’s adaptation of Scrooge is no longer the distant moneylender, but a cruel, grinding taskmaster, forcing his workers to work to their breaking points. Several pointed comments are made about industrialization throughout the piece, about refusing to allow humans to degenerate into “mere mechanical workers”, machines themselves. This conception of Scrooge perhaps strays a bit far from the text, but Dickens, himself forced into hard labor in a factory at twelve years old, would probably approve of the sentiment.
The familiar beats follow once Scrooge grudgingly gives his workers Christmas day off of work. Alone in his gloomy bedroom, Scrooge is haunted by the ghost of his dead business partner, Jacob Marley (Ace Anderson). But this is no genteel haunting — Anderson’s Marley bursts onto the stage in a true jump scare, wrapped in chains that threaten at every moment to drag him back to whatever hell he’s managed to escape. It’s viscerally frightening, especially in conjunction with the lighting design from Jeff Croiter and the eerie sound design from Broken Chord (a design collective consisting of designers/composers Daniel Baker and Aaron Meicht). Fighting to stay present, Marley warns Scrooge that he will share the same fate if he doesn’t change his ways, and augurs the coming of three spirits.
Christmas Past (a winsome Tiana Kaye Blair), here conceived of as the ghost of Scrooge’s beloved mother, takes Scrooge back into his childhood and youth, mourning the man he could’ve become. Christmas Present (Coda Leana Boyce, costumed fetchingly as a sort of Christmas-themed cross between Marie Antoinette and a circus ringmaster) shows Scrooge what he’s missing out on due to his miserly ways, from the meager, but joyful, festivities of the Cratchit family, to his estranged nephew Fred (Christopher Llewyn Ramirez)’s boisterous celebrations. And Christmas Future, conceived of as a dark shadow of the factory girl from the show’s opening, takes Scrooge on a terrifying journey into how little his death will mean to the people in his life. As always, Scrooge is scared straight, redeemed by the power of the Christmas spirit, and the show ends on the poignant ring of a single bell.
Potter’s Scrooge starts off in an even darker place than most portrayals, heartlessly grinding down his workers. But in Potter’s portrayal, the cruelty is clearly a defense mechanism for a sensitive man hardened by cruelty and loss in his youth. Scrooge is dismissive of his nephew, but Potter has him visibly flinch from the touch of his hand, still deeply affected by the loss of his sister — Fred’s mother, who died giving birth to Fred, much as Scrooge’s mother died giving birth to him. It’s a mask, and Potter skillfully drops it in the scenes from Scrooge’s youth, and especially when observing his lost fiancée Belle (Jo-Jo Steine). It’s a character that lends itself to parody, or to a simplistic arc, but it’s a testament to Potter’s skill combined with Ferrell’s direction that the arc towards redemption feels earned at every moment.
The rest of the cast turns in universally strong performances. Ian Ferguson’s Bob Cratchit remains a solid beacon of good in an otherwise unworthy world, and Blair’s portrayal of Mrs. Cratchit was thoroughly grounded, heartrendingly so in the vision of Christmas Future where Tiny Tim (Thomas Baughman) has passed away. Liz Mikel has her chance to shine in dual roles as a gender-swapped Mrs. Fezziwig, Scrooge’s beloved former boss, and as his downtrodden charwoman Ms. Dilber. Both the youth and adult actors should also be praised for navigating the set gracefully—actors were up and down stairs, over catwalks, moving from level to level without stumbling, some of them in period dresses as big as houses. Kudos also to choreographer Jeremy Allen Dumont for keeping the action fluid in such a challenging space.
Speaking of the dresses, costume designer Jennifer Caprio does an impressive job creating pieces for both the lower classes and the upper; a gorgeous full-skirted red dress, worn by Fred’s wife Lucy (Amber Marie Flores), was a particular standout, but the clothes of the factory workers had an interesting touch of Americana to them. And although I’ve mentioned the set already, it’s truly a triumph. It seems impossible at the play’s outset that the gloomy, cold set could ever be transformed into anything warm and holiday-appropriate, but through the combined magic of Boritt’s set design and Croiter’s lighting, they pull it off.
There’s always an embarrassment of riches when it comes to holiday shows, and it might be tempting to skip a familiar tale in favor of something new and flashy. But this is a don’t-miss production of a classic, which will not only delight those already long familiar with the tale, but will enchant kids who may not have seen a stage adaptation of the story. All this, and the proceeds help support the North Texas Food Bank? Not a whiff of humbug here, folks.