As a conjurer of distinctive, unforgettable characters in his many novels, Charles Dickens could never be accused of lacking imagination. But I do wonder if he could have possibly imagined the many incarnations his 1843 book “A Christmas Carol” would assume in its long afterlife.
Within a year of its publication, “A Christmas Carol” was adapted for the stage in both London and New York, and in recent decades its myriad theatrical presentations have become for North American drama companies the Christmas season cash cow that Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” ballet is to countless dance ensembles.
Ah, but the stage was only the beginning. “A Christmas Carol” has been made into no less than 28 movies, a Broadway musical (Comin’ Uptown, 1979), and Benjamin Britten’s 1947 orchestral work “Men of Goodwill: Variations on A Christmas Carol.” Choreographer Jaroslaw Jurasz made it into a ballet that premiered last month in Halberstadt, Germany.
And I regret never having viewed a BBC all mime production of the work that featured Marcel Marceau.
This brings us to Cygnet Theatre’s new production of “A Christmas Carol” staged as a live radio broacast from 1944, which opened this weekend (Dec. 2) at the Theater in Old Town. Inasmuch as nearly everyone in English-speaking realms knows this tale to the point of retching, director Sean Murray has concentrated on eliciting vivid characterizations from his talented cast and capitalizing on the variety of sonic effects that makes a radio play unique.
The result is an entertaining, occasionally sly recapitulation of the Dickens warhorse in a novel setting. Or course, if Murray had been truly inspired, he could have found a way to integrate a mime into his radio broadcast. That would have shown the BBC a thing or two and secured his place in the Guinness Book of Records.
His cast works together as a finely tuned ensemble, although there are a few standouts. Tom Stephenson’s Scrooge opened as a
smoldering Scrooge, gravely insisting on the supremacy of hard work and self-reliance. When he uttered his signature complaint, “Are there no prisons, no workhouses left for these needy creatures?” it brought to mind a recent political candidate’s secretly taped “47%” speech.
His Scrooge grew steadily, almost imperceptibly into the moral enlightenment that Dickens intended him th attain. Dickens did not give this character the Biblical name Ebenezer by accident.
The other actors played multiple characters, and Maggie Carney’s proved particularly toothsome. Her flinty Mrs. Cratchit had a delightful edge, and her Mrs. Dilbur (Scrooge’s housekeeper) fumed with delicious sarcasm. David McBean’s nephew Fred wore his temperate virtue gracefully; his ghost of Marley crackled with frightening accusation, and his Spirit of Christmas Present pronounced moral judgement with chilling authority. Melissa Fernandes’ earnest Tiny Tim was the only child’s voice in the cast that did not sound condescending, although I (dimly) recall that adults portraying children on the radio in that era employed exaggeration with impunity.
On the other hand, I found Tim Irving’s Bob Cratchit too dithering, especially at first, and Jonathan Dunn-Rankin’s program host and narrator tried my patience with his drawling singsong. Pace was too important in the medium of radio drama to accommodate such an affectation.
Music Director Billy Thompson’s score of skillful Christmas carol arrangements fit the occasion well—he wisely kept to minor-mode carols with simple arpeggiated accompaniments in the earlier scenes of the drama. The singing throughout was nothing less than stellar, especially the women’s trio (Carey, Fernandes and Melinda Gilb) that cultivated a sparkling closely-voiced sonority like the Andrews Sisters rode to fame in the late 1940s.
Jason Connors’ sound effects filled the bill, but there were few surprises. I did enjoy his dance-like articulations of footsteps, especially the more animated ones, and two ensemble sound effects should win some award: the munching, slurping sounds of the two families enjoying their Christmas dinner and the jubilant clatter of man and beast in the London street scene backgrounds.
Murray’s set appeared to be modestly refurbished from the last five [php snippet=1] seasons of the company’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” radio drama, but R. Craig Wolf’s lighting design took clever advantage of all the noctural and otherworldly possibilities of Dickens’ story. Costume Designer Shirley Pierson created a minutely calibrated 1940s diorama: tailored double-breasted suits with flashy ties for the men, and sensible (this was, wartime, remember) but tight-fitting ensembles for the women.
It is tempting to believe that Murray mounts these radio dramas solely for the opportunity to confect outrageous imaginary sponsors (Garrison Keillor, eat your heart out!). The hula-infused singing commercial for Hawaiian cheese balls with nuts displayed more steamy innuendo that a five-minute John Waters interview.
Tickets: $29-49 Box office: 619.337.1525 www.cygnettheatre.com
Cast: Maggie Carney, Jason Connors, Jonathan Dunn-Rankin, Melissa Fernandes, Melinda Gilb, Tim Irving, David McBean, Tom Stephenson
Director & Set Design: Sean Murray
Music Director, Pianist & Composer: Billy Thompson
Costume Design: Shirley Pierson
Lighting Design: R. Craig Wolf
Sound Design: Matt Lescault-Wood
Props Design: Angelica Ynfante
Wig/Makeup Design: Peter Herman
Stage Manager: Chandra R.M. Anthenill
Audio Mixer: Trevor Frank
Production Manager: Jennifer Stauffer
Technical Director: Rogelio Rosales