Regional Reviews: Phoenix
A Christmas Carol
Dickens' tale of the miserly and selfish businessman Scrooge shows how the effects that visits from four ghosts, including his former business partner Marley, help him see the mistakes of his past and better understand the less fortunate people around him, especially his employee Bob Cratchit and Cratchit's young crippled son Tiny Tim. Scrooge is able to overcome the errors of his ways, finds redemption, and in doing so helps not only himself but those around him. Set on Christmas Eve, it is a wonderful story of how it is never too late to change and consequently change the lives of those we touch as well.
"Marley is dead" is a phrase repeated several times during the opening moments of director David Vining's adaptation and, since that is also the way Dickens' novel begins, I knew we were in good hands with an adaptation that sticks close to the original story structure. Using many direct lines of dialogue from Dickens' book and by having almost every one of his actors serve as narrators throughout the play, Vining's adaptation has the essence of the novel come to life. The actors not only tell us the story of Scrooge but they act out the various scenes and sing traditional Christmas carols as well, all with the language of Dickens ringing soundly throughout. It is one of the best adaptations of this story that I've seen on stage.
Not only is the adaptation great, but the cast is just about perfect, too. Led by Southwest Shakespeare's Producing Artistic Director Jared Sakren as Scrooge, Sakren is actually the only actor in the cast who doesn't play several parts. Sakren is on stage for almost the entire play and he does an excellent job of portraying all of the shadings and layers of the character. Gruff, conflicted, reflective, joyful and sad are just some of the many emotions and feelings that Sakren easily depicts. His body language also mirrors his emotions, heavy and rough in the beginningbut at the end when Scrooge says he feels as "light as a feather" just watch how Sakren floats around the stage.
The remainder of the cast includes Dion Johnson as Bob Cratchit, Joshua Martin as the Ghosts of Christmas Present and Future, David Rodgers as Marley's Ghost, Portia Beacham as the Ghost of Christmas Past, Andy Cahoon as Scrooge's nephew, Christina Cullers as Belle, and Anne-Marie O'Reilly as Mrs. Fezziwig. But each of these actors plays other roles as well and some of them are on stage almost as often as Sakren.
Johnson's Cratchit exudes warmth. His scenes with his family are touching and sincere, and the way he quakes around the stern Scrooge is exactly the way someone with a horrendous boss would react. His turn as Fezziwig, Scrooge's first employer, is full of life, love and laughter. Martin, who also serves as music director for this production, provides a nice amount of humor as the Ghost of Christmas Present. Beacham's eyes and face are fascinating to watch and add much to the many characters she plays, including a lovely take on the Ghost of Christmas Past. Cahoon wears many hats and accents as the various characters he plays, including a sincere and charming turn as Scrooge's nephew and also an inflexible Young Scrooge and he doesn't miss a beat at any of these roles. Even in a small comic part he shines. Cullers is lovely as Belle, the girl that Scrooge almost married, as well as the wife of Scrooge's nephew. She also has a beautiful voice that is featured on several of the carols in the show. I just wish her hair design were as attractive as she is. O'Reilly is the perfect wife and mother in both her main roles as Mrs. Cratchit and Mrs. Fezziwig, providing a rich and touching portrayal of a mother with a young crippled boy as well as a good amount of humor as Mrs. Fezziwig.
The intimate setting of the Playhouse on the Park works perfectly for this production and Vining does an excellent job in staging the scenes with his fine ensemble of actors, including a nice group of children, with the small stage never feeling packed and movement nicely spread across the stage with clever use of every stage entrance including the aisles. And, even though the show runs a brisk 90 minutes plus intermission, Vining paces the scenes nicely, not rushing the most important ones. A few of the many highlights include the constantly crisp and accurate accents throughout the show, the humorous "Yes and No" game at Scrooge's nephew's house and Vining's skillful direction of the children in the cast. A nice amount of singing is heard throughout the show, including a simply amazing a capella "Carol of the Bells" that opens act two. The entire cast, including the children, are featured on the songs sprinkled throughout the show.
Set designs by Eric Beeck are minimal but serviceable with a giant clock that hovers over the stage to always show Scrooge, and us, of the imposing time of the Ghost's visits. Choreographer Jennifer Reiner provides a nice amount of dance, including a lovely moment at the Fezziwig Ball where the children mirror and mimic the dance being done by the adults. Impeccable costume designs by Adrianna Diaz include numerous spot on period perfect designsseveral terrific dresses and men's suits, vests and even spats. Her designs for Marley and the Ghost of Christmas Future are as dark and spooky as those for the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present are colorful and fun. Sound designer Peter Bish has constructed a lovely design, including nice echo effects for Marley and the ghosts.
With a great cast, superb direction and an excellent adaptation of the Dickens novel, you definitely won't be shouting "Bah! Humbug!" at the Southwest Shakespeare Company's excellent production of A Christmas Carol.
Southwest Shakespeare Company's production of A Christmas Carol runs through December 21 at Playhouse on the Park, 1850 N. Central Avenue, in Phoenix. Tickets can be purchased at www.swshakespeare.org.
Director/Adaptation by: David Vining