Dallas — Huge industrial furnaces, three tiers high, blaze with fiery sparks. Weary workers toil on the factory floor, stoking the fires, hauling giant copper buckets on chains and pushing wooden wheelbarrows filled with coal through the smoky air.
High on a catwalk above the men, women and young children in his employ, stands Ebenezer Scrooge (a cold, unflinching Hassan El-Amin, smartly costumed in long coat and vest), the pitiless factory owner, scornful of charity for the poor. “I can’t afford to make idle people merry,” he says, dismissing an appeal for money to feed hungry, jobless citizens in mid-19th century London.
We’re in the midst of Dallas Theater Center’s A Christmas Carol, the third production of Kevin Moriarty’s provocative, beautifully realized adaptation of the Charles Dickens novella, featuring designer Beowulf Boritt’s darkly spectacular sets and Jennifer Caprio’s detailed costumes. Brierley Resident Acting Company member Christie Vela, in her directorial debut at DTC, moves her nimble cast swiftly forward in 100 emotion-packed minutes with no intermission.
Vela’s engaging approach to the story of a greedy capitalist’s miraculous redemption moves rhythmically from grim scenes of exhausting labor and clammy spirits from hell, to the light-filled joy of a Christmas feast, filled with dance and song, or a bright sprite interested in games and a good time. Back and forth we go, along with a terrified, trembling, and eventually on-his-knees Scrooge.
Before you can say, “Marley was dead as a doornail,” the dusty ghost (a ghastly, imploring Alex Organ) rattles his chains right onto Scrooge’s four-poster, rising stage-center and shrouded in fog. The scene is zombie-spooky, and when Marley clutches his old partner to warn him of the three ghosts that will appear to him this Christmas Eve, I was as shaken as Scrooge. Really little kids will climb into laps at this point.
Steam pumps full blast from the stool he sits on, golden lights switch on around us on the theater’s tiers, and Scrooge is taken to his past (Lydia Mackay plays the Ghost of Christmas Past) as a child left in boarding school, and swiftly along to the sound of a violin playing “The Holly and the Ivy.” His old boss Fezziwig (the always agile Chamblee Ferguson, here with blonde wig and silly turquoise trousers) gets the fun going by pulling an enormous proper hog’s head, replete with apple, out of the oven and trotting it around the room. Meanwhile his apprentices and their pretty, tittering ladies (gorgeously costumed in bustling gowns) make some serious merry to Jeremy Allen Dumont’s stylistically diverse choreography.
The joint is jumping. Mrs. Fezziwig (wicked scene-stealer, and ever-ebullient Liz Mikel) jumps on the center table for a turn. A strolling fiddler accompanies them as they sing “I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In.” The stunned old Scrooge looks on his young self in touching sadness as young Ebenezer (a quietly determined Timothy Paul Brown) leads the group in an exuberant dance, complete with hand-slapping and a shared shy kiss with his fiancé Belle (a dark-eyed, earnest Alejandra Flores).
Smacking of the vicious takeovers of our own time, Moriarty has inserted a telling scene in which young Ebenezer and his pal Marley (Organ, handsome minus the corpse make-up) ruthlessly foreclose on their good-hearted old boss, assuring him that his employees will be well-treated (this adaptation changes Scrooge and Marley’s occupation as running a factory with workers, rather than the financial business with Cratchit as the only employee). Have we heard this before? Like a memo ahead of the lay-offs and pension cuts?
In the hands of the high-flying, squealing Ghost of Christmas Present (an enviably lithe and adorably eager Dorcas Leung), Scrooge sees himself not only in the eyes of his faithful employee Bob Cratchit (a gentle, upbeat Cameron Cobb) but in the less admiring view of Mrs. Crachit (an angry Traci Elaine Lee).
When giddy sprite and willing pilgrim drop in on a party hosted by his nephew Fred (a relentlessly cheerful Brandon Potter), Scrooge again sees how others regard his money-grubbing ways. Yet, through the revisiting of the past, the revelations of the present and the intimation of what might be, we never lose sight of how these lonely terrors or festive gatherings affect Scrooge himself.
El-Amin, a physically strong actor with a great range of skills, is chillingly convincing as a merciless, profit-seeking industrialist. He turns a stony gaze and shrugs at the suffering of the people who do the work that makes him rich. His Scrooge moves from uncaring stoic, through personal fear, to a gradual empathy for the adults and children around him. It’s quite a feat, and when he does discover he’s “still here,” you’ll never see a happier man, totally jazzed up to do good for his fellow man.
In so many ways, this A Christmas Carol could not be timelier, giving us hope for peace in a world rife with racial tension, gross economic inequality, and the threat of terrorism. The final scene, filled with old-fashioned wreaths and gold-glowing trees and swelling song, is one to take home for the holidays.
Then when you reach the lobby, you can reduce local hunger yourself by donating to The North Texas Food Bank, this production’s Christmas charity for the past eight years.