What would the holidays be without Charles Dickens’ tale of ghostly visitors and a miser’s redemption? Yes, of course I mean “A Christmas Carol,” when Ebenezer Scrooge struts and frets on the stage or screen and learns lessons about himself while growing his Grinch-like heart a few sizes bigger.
Last Christmas season, I enjoyed two different versions of the classic tale. There were so many to choose from, back when live theatre venues were open for business and hoping to spread the holiday spirit and fill their seats with appreciative audiences. Needless to say, the global pandemic doused the idea of live audiences enjoying a festive Christmas show. As theatre company’s have pivoted to outdoor and drive-through performances, and embraced more intimate work via Zoom, a few theatres have worked creatively, keeping health issues in mind, to light up their stages again. One such company is Virginia Stage Company in Norfolk, VA, which usually fills up their gorgeous, vintage Wells Theatre for a full season of theatre productions.
God bless Virginia Stage Company for a heavenly ‘A Christmas Carol.’
Just in time for the holiday, with health and safety protocols in place for audiences, the Wells, Virginia Stage Company has roared back onto the stage with a moving rendition of “A Christmas Carol.” Even if you cannot get to Norfolk for a live performance, thanks to the generosity of PNC Bank, anyone can enjoy their version of Dickens’ tale from the comfort of their own home. Now streaming for free through December 31, this version of “A Christmas Carol” is a welcome entry to your holiday viewing and theatrical experiences.
This production is one of the most unique and moving I have seen. Featuring a small cast, creative staging, and an eclectic selection of seasonal songs, this version of Scrooge and company will delight audiences of all ages.
No need to recount the story of Ebenezer Scrooge for most of humanity. He is still the grasping, miserly curmudgeon who resists the goodness of other people and has nothing but disdain for Christmas until his dead, old partner Jacob Marley makes a nocturnal visit that changes Scrooge’s life forever. The three other spirits representing Christmas still lead Ebenezer on a journey of self-discovery that tears his old wounds open and lays bear his empty soul so that redemption and love can once again take up residence.
This production is adapted and directed by Patrick Mullins, who fashions a faithful retelling of this “ghost story of Christmas” and has its own flavor and style. Retold and acted by a talented company of just four actors and one musician, this version moves swiftly from one scene to the other, as the performers change costumes and props in full view of the audience. The imaginative and simplified staging — keeping post-Covid safety protocols in mind — reminded me of the classic “Our Town“ staging, where a few trunks and ladders and a table become everything and anything needed to tell the story. The major set piece is a large wooden frame covered in paper where “Scrooge and Marley” is painted and dominates the stage. Throughout the performance, actors burst through the paper wall to make entrances, and even use the framework to serve as a prop in many scenes. Scene design consultant, David Shuhy, is credited in the program. The look is made even more effective by the atmospheric lighting design by Akin Ritchie. Period costumes, designed by Jeni Schaefer, not only help the actors change characters, they also serve as unusual scenic elements that play a major part of the storytelling throughout the show.
The four actors who take on all the roles are lead by Mullins as Scrooge. Eschewing the often-used heavy makeup and stringy hair wig of many film and stage adaptations, Mullins chose to keep his look as Scrooge simple and let the acting do the work. From his time as the dried up old miser to the open-hearted catharsis at the end, Mullins as Scrooge commands the stage.
Supporting Mullins from start to finish and taking on all the other roles is a talented ensemble who embraces the style and challenge of this production with skillful abandon. Ryan Clemens easily moves from Bob Cratchit, to Marley, and to a magnificent Ghost of Christmas Present. As Scrooge’s nephew Fred, his old flame Belle, Mrs. Cratchit, and others, Meredith Noel matches Clemens for energy and distinctive portrayals for every character. Trezure Coles rounds out the cast of hundreds, memorably as the voice for the puppet that serves as a touching Tiny Tim.
One of the most striking moments in this production is the entrance of the most terrifying spirit who visits Scrooge — the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. A combination of actor, puppet, and lighting serves up a memorably menacing specter which leads to Mullins’ most poignant scene — when Scrooge finds his humanity again.
Also providing essential support throughout the production is Jo’siah Shan as a member of the ensemble but chiefly as the music director and keyboard player. From his perch in one of the Wells Theatre’s lovely box seats, Shan brings the festive story to life with piano stylings that include interpolations of many classic and modern seasonal songs, such as “Santa Clause is Coming to Town,” “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree,” “Winter Wonderland,” “Last Christmas,” and, as theme of sorts, “All I Want for Christmas is You.” The entire cast gets in on the musical act, including Scrooge himself. The musical additions enhance the story in surprising ways but are very effective.
My only regret watching Virginia Stage Company’s “A Christmas Carol” was that I was not in the audience at the picturesque and palatial Wells Theatre, a true theatre treasure in the Tidewater area. But I was thankful to PNC Bank partnering with VSC to bring this memorable production to the world which needs the message of redemption and live theatre now more than ever. God bless us, everyone, and God bless Virginia Stage Company for a heavenly “A Christmas Carol.”
Running Time: 92 minutes, streaming.
Advisory: Suitable for all audiences, but would likely appeal to age 12 through adult.
“A Christmas Carol,” presented by Virginia Stage Company, streams through December 31, 2020 through this link. The virtual program about the show is found here. The show is free but donations to Virginia Stage Company are accepted. For more information go to Virginia Stage Company’s website here.