What: A Christmas Carol
Where: Belfry Theatre
When: To Dec. 20
Rating: five (out of five)
When the Belfry Theatre staged Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in 2012, it was an impressive production.
Now it’s back, and the adaptation, a visual feast employing some of the same cast, seems better than ever.
Much credit goes to returning star Tom McBeath, whose Scrooge is just the sort of miser a modern audience can appreciate. He’s still a Victorian-era villain ripe for redemption, yet McBeath makes the character a real human, too.
Also key to the show’s success is Michael Shamata’s strong direction and unified concept (he wrote the adaptation). The show is well acted and beautifully lit, and the costumes and set are superb. And the red-haired youngster playing Tiny Tim is cuter than Shirley Temple on Christmas Day. Simply put, if you don’t like this A Christmas Carol, you’re a real Grinch.
McBeath (resembling Neil Young with his spectacular mutton-chops) is determined that his Scrooge avoid caricature or cliché. His performance at Wednesday’s preview embraced a certain naturalism, reflecting a genuine interest in serving the play. Because Scrooge is such an over-the-top baddie, there’s plenty of opportunity for winking asides and easy laughs. McBeath resists all such temptation and, as a result, the audience enjoys a superior offering.
The other lynchpin is Gerry Mackay, returning as Jacob Marley and the three ghosts. His Marley is no clanking, moaning blowhard — he’s a dynamo. He scolds Scrooge like an enraged pirate, seething with emotion. When he stalks the stage with his chains, one imagines Marley is resisting the urge to flog sense into his old partner.
It’s a whopping cast of 14, so giving every performer credit is impossible. Among the notables is Amanda Lisman. In the affecting scene in which Belle breaks her engagement with Scrooge, Lisman’s acting style suggested an old-fashioned romanticism. Yet far from seeming stodgy or stiff, it worked wonderfully well.
Shamata has directed A Christmas Carol a number of times. It shows — he oversees it with great confidence, from the merest detail to broad strokes. Watching this two-hour (with intermission) production is like experiencing a symphony. There are markedly different movements, as Scrooge meets ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. There are fast and slow passages, crescendos and decrescendos.
One moment, we see a festive, brightly lit, well-choreographed party scene. Elsewhere we encounter Scrooge, alone in a darkened room. He’s forgotten his match, so he exits unhurriedly, returns with one and lights a single candle. Such contrasts are navigated with great skill.
There are jolly, joyous sequences, some especially benefiting from Brian Linds, a good comic actor, as Mr. Fezziwig. At the same time, Shamata and company never forget this is a ghost story. This show is downright spooky. When lightning and thunderclaps punctuated key scenes, the woman in front of me exclaimed in fright. She recovered sufficiently to croon “Awww!” when Tiny Tim —the adorable Kyle Atlas Stahl — uttered his “God bless us everyone” line.
The designers (costumes by Nancy Bryant, set by John Ferguson, lights by Alan Brodie) do an exemplary job. The creativity and attention to detail is typified by Scrooge’s encounter with his own tombstone. It’s suggested by projecting just the inscription on the doorway and Scrooge’s own back. A lovely theatrical touch.
Modern in sensibility when it needs to be, Christmas Carol is still an old-fashioned Christmas entertainment. The overall look is superb. Period costumes, in earth-tones and pastels, are gorgeous and beautifully detailed (there are 1,500 costume pieces in the show). The main set piece, which never leaves the stage, is a classical stone doorway, with a Roman-numeral clock on top. This imposing edifice is often low-lit in an atmospheric, very Victorian way, flanked by wafts of fog.
The pace does slow in one scene where the deceased Tiny Tim is laid out on a black coffin. His family’s lugubrious hand-wringing seems to go on forever. I began to wish they’d bury the unfortunate child and be done with it. It’s a quibble, though.
This is a fine show. If you go, it will almost certainly be the best Christmas entertainment you see this season. And, of course, Dickens’ message — the need for charity and generosity — is as relevant today as ever.