Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

A Christmas Carol
Review by Patrick Thomas

Also see Patrick's review of Georgiana and Kitty: Christmas at Pemberley

Nancy Opel, Amber Iman, Francois Battiste,
and Monica Ho

Photo by Joan Marcus
What could be more classic at Christmastime than Dickens's A Christmas Carol? For decades, San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater staged a production of the beloved holiday tale each year, and it became a tradition for some families to see the show every season. This year ACT has opted to forgo the custom, and the torch was passed to BroadwaySF, who have brought a new production to town for a four-week run at the Golden Gate Theatre (a separate touring production is currently in Los Angeles). With a book by Jack Thorne (who also wrote Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) and directed by Matthew Warchus, this version won five Tonys last year: one for Best Original Score and four technical awards, including a very well-deserved win for Best Scenic Design of a Play. But it's always a risk when one messes with a classic. Although this version is about 90% faithful to the spirit of the original, the creators took some liberties with Dickens's story that make it more charming in some aspects, but contemporized it in other ways that feel out of tune with Boz's tone.

Upon entering the Golden Gate Theatre, one's eye is seized by the massive staging created by Rob Howell: a giant truss hanging over the first 10 or so rows of the house, with hundreds of lanterns of varying sizes suspended from it. On stage are several large piles of more lanterns (unlit at this point), with giant chains rising up into the fly space. During walk-in, members of the cast and orchestra play carols, dance, and toss mandarin oranges into the audience.

As the show begins, with Scrooge at his desk (composed of boxes of varying sizes, all bearing a "Scrooge & Marley" logo), four door frames rise at all four points of the compass, symbolically walling in Scrooge amongst his precious ledger books. When the spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Future appear, these frames tilt back into the stage, providing a clear boundary between Scrooge's reality and the visitations he receives.

The cast (other than Francois Battiste's Scrooge) occasionally serve as a Greek chorus of sorts, reciting Dickens's expository text, which helps to drive the action forward. And there is plenty of action, as old Scrooge receives one unwelcome guest after another. First come the carolers at his door, seeking donations to help the poor get a bit of "meat and drink, and means of warmth," whom Scrooge shoos away with his famous epithet that if the poor are in danger of dying, "they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population." Next comes the old miser's nephew Fred (Leroy S. Graham III), asking Scrooge to Christmas dinner, an invitation he declines with his even more famous "Bah, humbug."

Returning to his quarters, the next unwelcome guest is the ghost of his former partner, Jacob Marley (Ben Beckley), draped in heavy chains. Marley tells Scrooge that he learned his lessons about charity and friendship only after death, but that Scrooge still has the chance to change his life before it's too late. From that point, it's one ghost after another, showing Scrooge where he lost his way, what his misanthropy has led to, and where it will lead him if he doesn't get back on the right path.

In this production, the three ghosts are all played by women (including Nancy Opel as the Ghost of Christmas Past, and Amber Iman as the Ghost of Christmas Present). And though gender makes no difference in how frightening a specter might be, somehow these three come off more as overly strict, maternal figures of the "I warned you not to..." sort, rather than horrifying spirits from beyond the grave. Once Scrooge awakens from his night of horrors, he is indeed a changed man. But writer Jack Thorne drives the message home far too brazenly, even inventing a scene in which Scrooge visits Belle (Ash Malloy), the love of his youth, whom he never married (because he wanted first to make his fortune), to make amends of a sort. It's the most egregious way the creators have strayed from the original text, and the one that feels most out of place.

On the other end of the spectrum of changes is one that is delightful, even if the language used is the least Dickensian of the night: the assembly of a Christmas feast, with foodstuffs supposedly donated by San Franciscans. A gift from the San Francisco Giants for instance, a cheese platter from "a trader named Joe," and many more—all of which end up piled in large baskets on stage.

A Christmas Carol has always been a sort of cautionary tale—intended to teach us that's it's not just Scrooge who can be more generous, kind and cheerful. When the Ghost of Christmas Present shows him the suffering he and those like him (those with lots of money and influence but little empathy) have caused, Scrooge turns away, and the spirit chides him with "There is much you do not wish to see, Mr. Scrooge," it serves as a reminder to we in the audience not to close our eyes to suffering. Sadly, suffering is all too much on display just outside the doors of the Golden Gate Theatre, in a neighborhood where many of San Francisco's homeless reside. To BroadwaySF's credit, cast members were stationed at the exits to collect donations for Compass Family Services, an organization dedicated to changing the fortunes of the unhoused in the Bay Area.

A Christmas Carol runs through December 26, 2021, at SHN's Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor Street, San Francisco CA. Tickets range from $56-$256, and are available by calling the box office at 888-746-1799 or by visiting For more information on the tour, visit: