Theatre Review by Howard Miller - November 21, 2022
A Christmas Carol. Adapted by Jefferson Mays, Susan Lyons, and Michael Arden. Production conceived by Michael Arden and Dane Laffrey. Directed by Michael Arden. Scenic and costume design by Dane Laffrey. Lighting design by Ben Stanton. Sound design by Joshua D. Reid. Projection design by Lucy Mackinnon. Hair and makeup design by Cookie Jordan. Production stage manager and associate director Justin Scribner.
It's no real surprise to see Mays pulling this off. He's done it before, captivating us with his performance in Doug Wright's one-man play I Am My Own Wife, and hilariously entertaining us in the Robert L. Freedman/Steven Lutvak musical A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder. In the latter, he portrayed eight different characters. So, really, what's a few dozen more? And so, there's everyone you'd expect to encounter: Scrooge, Marley's Ghost, Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim, Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig, Belle, Fan, Fred, the whole kit and caboodle. But if what you remember most about the story from previous family-friendly retellings is a generally upbeat message and heartwarming sentimentality, you'll need to set aside those expectations.
The tone of this production is much darker, and it is established even before the play begins. A foreboding deep bass thrumming accompanies us into the theater, and the turn-off-your-phones signs carried by the ushers has this additional message: "Respect the dead!" If you glance at your Playbill, you may notice that the framing incarnation of Mays-as-narrator is identified as "The Mourner." Look up toward the partly revealed set, and you'll see that in the near-total darkness, as the person behind me said to her companion in a tone of jarring surprise, "there's a coffin on stage!" Not only on stage, but sitting in a desolate subterranean vault, with only a glimmer of distant light for us to see by.
Suddenly, the lid of that coffin closes with a bang, and from out of the darkness comes a disembodied voice, reciting Dickens's well-known opening to A Christmas Carol, the preamble that sets the story on its path: "Marley was dead, to begin with."
And then, out of the darkness, Mays appears, dressed all in black. He strikes a match and lights one candle, and then another. Over the next few minutes, he leads us through the early section of the story, the part that establishes Scrooge's malign interactions with others, a curmudgeon's checklist: Scrooge's treatment of Bob Cratchit; of his nephew Fred; and of the gentlemen who come seeking a donation to help the poor and needy, ending with the begrudging consent to grant his clerk "the whole day off" for Christmas. You know the words: "A poor excuse for picking a man's pocket every twenty-fifth of December!"
From there on, it becomes increasingly clear that we have embarked on a journey through a dark, dark tale of gloom, doom and regret. And while the uplift of redemption remains in this incarnation, which has been adapted from the original by Mays, his wife actress Susan Lyons, and the show's director Michael Arden, much of it is quite bleak, a reflection of the Victorian England in which it takes place.
This is not a version of A Christmas Carol to take the kids to unless they have a good grasp of 19th century British vocabulary and of the socio-economic situation of the times. Not to mention a high tolerance for ghostly visitations of the decidedly non-Casper variety. For once Scrooge makes his solitary way home and encounters Marley's Ghost, Mays-as-narrator all but disappears, and Mays-as-magnificent-chameleon of an actor comes fully into his own. With subtle shifts in body language, facial expression, and tone and style of speech, he transforms seamlessly from character to character, bringing each of them fully to life. It is, by any measure, an extraordinary and riveting performance.
Yet Mays' work, as amazing as it is, does not stand on its own. The production has been fitted with equally extraordinary stagecraft, from Dane Laffrey's perfect period costumes and remarkable set design that changes in the blink of an eye, to Ben Stanton's incredible lighting that reinvents the use of shadow and light, to Lucy Mackinnon's wondrous projections, to Joshua D. Reid's thrilling sound design. And let's not forget to tip our hats to Danny Gardner, who is on hand to provide an actor's skill to the silent, otherworldly appearance of The Spectre. It's all of a piece, and it's all great theater. You may still enjoy revisiting old favorite versions of A Christmas Carol, but this is surely one you won't want to miss.