Dallas — It’s the most wonderful time of the year.
It’s the same old song, but with a different meaning as the years go along. That’s what makes the holidays so rich. The repetition of yearly tradition allows us a way to see what’s changed and what’s stayed the same. By comparing the present to our memory of the past, we glimpse our future.
If that doesn’t remind you of Charles Dickens’ story of Ebenezer Scrooge’s ghost-filled night, it’s time for you to start a new tradition of A Christmas Carol at the Dallas Theater Center. It’s been so firmly planted in their season that it has evolved beyond family tradition and spiritual renewal ritual to a cultural touchstone for the city. The cast is filled with recognizable faces from the Brierley Resident Acting Company, as well as returning local talent. The familiar story of redemption for a captain of industry fits Dallas so well thematically, partly due to Artistic Director Kevin Moriarty’s adaptation. It’s all so hand-in-glove that you might miss the biggest change that this year’s director, Steven Michael Walters, has made. Scrooge is a woman.
Not a chance. Nobody misses Sally Nystuen Vahle.
Vahle approaches the role with a Medea-like intensity. There are no easy laughs from goofy antics by a knock-kneed, night shirted grandpa. This is a three-dimensional character whose isolation comes as a clear by-product of strict adherence to a goal: business. Rarely does Scrooge’s severity come off as so pained. Usually the vehicle for laughs, Scrooge’s meanness here is instead made into the absence of something. The missing thing would benefit her by its return as much as everyone around her.
Alex Organ plays Bob Cratchit with an unwavering kindness. His Cratchit has enough warmth and goodness for both of them, much to the chagrin of his wife played protective wariness by Christine Sanders. Director Walters begins the whole affair with Organ and Tiny Tim (either Georgia Rose Bell or Nina Ruby Gameros depending on the performance) singing a cappella in the center of designer Beowulf Boritt’s imposing warehouse. Lighting designer Jeff Croiter obliges with a simple down light. (He’s got lots of tricks up his sleeve for later.) As a tiny piece of humanity amongst all the pipes, Cratchit is a candle in the darkness. Simple, but surprisingly bright. Organ will keep his performance just as simple and sincere throughout.
Fortunately, everyone doesn’t have to be so realistic. With these two main roles well in hand, the rest of the cast can fill in with romantic embellishment, musical levity and ghost story creepiness. To match the female Scrooge, director Walters has cast Lydia Mackay as Marley. She makes a bold first appearance, pulled tight against the chains from the underworld. Her body is so rigid that when she does move the audience flinches. For fans of the jump scare, it’s a treat. My 13-year-old loved how creepy the show was as a whole, but agreed that this moment, as well as some others, would be too dark for more sensitive (read: younger) viewers.
To counter the dark, there’s plenty of light to go around. Chamblee Ferguson plays the chief merry-maker, Fezziwig (opposite Liz Mikel) with all the expected tomfoolery, but his silliness isn’t so easily sated with one role. Whether a drunk in the party scene (opposite Cameron Cobb) or as Scrooge’s put upon servant, Ferguson proves again why he’s an audience favorite. By the end of the show the people around me were delighted narrating his facial expressions.
For the more romantic of heart, Gabrielle Reyes and Ace Anderson simmer with longing glances. In this version, Director Walters has made Scrooge’s nephew a niece. She earnestly works for a family reconciliation having somehow driven a wedge by choosing to have a child. Reyes also plays Scrooge as a young woman, opposite Anderson. Their pairing pays off in the past and the present.
The show’s missteps are made more noticeable by their rarity. Mikel’s Christmas Present attire, for instance, designed by Jennifer Caprio, seems out of place against her all-white, confetti-strewing urchins. At times, the immersive sound design by Broken Chord swallows the dialogue. But these are quibbles when weighed against the vast period-specific wardrobe or the many moving parts of music directed by Vonda K. Bowling and choreography by Jeremy Allen Dumont.
Like any other big holiday gathering, it’s a whirlwind of sights, textures and sounds. The faces, melodies and feelings flash past with no intermission to catch your breath or break the spell. In the early evening afterglow light of the Arts District, the memories will begin to blend with past productions in a pleasant feeling of fullness.
Soon, you’ll be ready for next year.