Regional Reviews: San Francisco
A Christmas Carol Revisited
Also see Richard's review of How The Other Half Loves
Once again, the American Conservatory Theatre is presenting the magical production of Charles Dickens' "ghost story for Christmas." This is their 25th annual production of The Christmas Carol, with first time Young Conservatory Director Craig Slaight. Peter Maleitzke, who was recently appointed music director, has made the classic more musical than last year's somewhat dull production. Both of these men have added sparkle and liveliness to the current production. Returning this year is Steven Anthony Jones, the first African American actor to play the tight fisted and grasping Ebenezer Scrooge.
Charles Dickens wrote his masterpiece in 1843 to raise money to finance a new home for his family, and he had to convince his editor to publish the book. It became an instant success. Charles Dickens has probably had more influence on the way that we celebrate Christmas than any single individual in human history except one. Dickens said of the holiday: "a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely ... " His name has become so synonymous with Christmas that on hearing of his death in 1870, a little costermonger's girl in London asked, "Mr. Dickens dead?? Then will Father Christmas die too?"
Father Christmas has not died, and performances of A Christmas Carol by companies all over the world have kept the spirit of him alive. Many films from the silent era to current times have been made on this classic. It seems every middle-aged actor has played Ebenezer Scrooge, from Reginald Owen to Alistair Sim to Patrick Stewart and yes, even Mister Magoo. Many fine actors from ACT have played the role over the years, including William Patterson, Sidney Walker, Peter Donat and Ray Birk. All were commendable in the role.
The story of A Christmas Carol is known by every child and adult in this land. We see how wrenching, tightfisted Scrooge is visited by three ghosts on Christmas Eve, and we see the amazing transformation of this old curmudgeon as he becomes the kind, generous man to all persons.
The new director Craig Slaight has affixed his own signature on the current production. It is lighter and airier then last year's; there is more dancing and singing, and the actors move around much more to keep the action going. Last year, the frequent "freezing" of the actors stalled the action. The scenes of Bob Cratchit's Christmas dinner is more natural now, and even Tiny Tim played by Chase Macauley Maxwell is a cute little cherub. The production also boasts 33 ACT students who give life to the drama.
Thomas Gomez, doubling as Charles Dickens and the Ghost of Christmas Present, is brilliant, even with the radiant costume. Brud Fogarty is wonderful as Bob Cratchit. He plays the role naturally as a happy man with a loving family even while working for the penny pinching Scrooge.
Steven Anthony Jones returns to the lead role of Scrooge, and he has lost his Jamaican accent from last year. He has the emotional amplitude of the character to change from one money grubbing selfish person to a man who is full of kindness to his fellow man. Jones is more energetic, and his giggle after discovering his better self is certainly infectious.
There are many delightful scenes in this 2 hour with no intermission production. The Fezziwig party is a scene of real joy that has not been realized in prior productions. The wonderful Brian Keith Russell and Margaret Schenek as Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig are delightful to watch. Choreography by Christine Mattison is pure Victorian and full of the spirit of joyfulness. The scene between young Scrooge at the orphanage and his sister Fan is distressing and it touches the heart. The final scenes where Scrooge faces the ghost of Christmas Future is chilling. This is an effective piece of theater.
Once again, Robert Blackman's toy box set at the center of the stage is very effective as pieces are taken away as the production progresses. The storybook costumes by Robert Morgan and David F. Draper are wonderful. All in all this is a charming production and it is great improvement over last year's production.
Christmas Carol runs thru December 29th. For tickets call 415-749-2228 or go to the Geary Theatre box office on Geary Street, San Francisco. You can also go to their web site at www.act-sfbay.org.