The Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come was a terrific touch in Cygnet Theatre Company’s last A Christmas Carol, mounted in 2005 — the hulking, spindly, raven demon stood on little ceremony as Ebenezer Scrooge was shown the interdictory manner of his dispatch. I’m reminded of those moments when I think of this season’s installment, which features an equally spectral messenger; and several different turns, like a puppet Tiny Tim and two female alms-takers, indicate that the first Carol had by no means cornered the market on creativity.
Where this Carol lets down is in director Sean Murray’s adaptation. That said, please know that the show features all sorts of reasons to see it, like the cast’s decent sense of ensemble, Melinda Gilb’s thoroughness as the funny turkey boy and a totally riotous turn by Maggie Carney as Mrs. Dilbur, Scrooge’s crotchety Cockney ‘ousekeepah. But there are only so many ways to adapt this script until it turns into something else, chiefly because the public is so desperately familiar with the story in the first place. The gaps in continuity are plainly felt in this fair mount, especially amid the inexplicable absence of an absolutely indispensable character.
The storyline bears repeating only because I have the space: Tight-fisted, wheedling Scrooge, who for years has punked Victorian London with his miserly ways and casehardened business acumen, is visited by three spirits assigned to seek his ownership of past misdeeds and, ultimately, his redemption. The better gets best as he morphs into an ambassador of Yuletide goodwill and mutual love, having digested the spirits’ lessons in humanity and acting accordingly. “ … [I]t was always said of him,” concluded the story’s author Charles Dickens of his character, “that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.”
And in case you’ve been out of the room since the book’s 1843 publication: Tiny Tim, God bless us every one, dodged a serious bullet.
But there’s subtext and then there’s subtext, and it’s largely missing from Tom Stephenson’s Scrooge for several reasons — chief among them the mysterious disappearance of nephew Fred. Fred is a magnificent source of inspiration for Scrooge’s brooding character, a fount of good cheer against Scrooge’s caliginous soul, primarily because he’s family! Without kin like Fred, the possibilities for Scrooge’s redemption dim indeed, making his epiphany all the less likely. So too do they fade without the saga of Eb’s unfortunate sister Fan and the understory behind his fiscal deceptions on his way to a ripe old age, both plainly absent here.
The dialogue for its own sake muddies the waters as well. “I seem to have been restored to consciousness,” Eb says after his visit with the Ghost of Christmas Past, as if we can’t see that. “I seem to recall” that the sound of chains, like partner Jacob Marley’s, are endemic in older houses; so what if he does? “Is this my future?” he wails as he stumbles on his final resting place (after politely informing us he’s clearing the snow from his tombstone). Of course this is his future, as it is all our futures, no matter the depth and breadth of our hearts. Did Scrooge actually think that death was beneath him, especially amid the news years before of Marley’s demise? Somehow, I doubt it.
Bob Cratchit’s and Fezziwig’s (both Patrick McBride) underwritten passages. Marley’s (David McBean) lack of reference at show’s end (Marley’s the one who started the whole ball rolling; doesn’t he get at least an honorable mention?). Multiple narrators, motivated to their positions by who knows what. On and on go the fits and starts, countered nonetheless by cool tech twists (like three Ghosts of the Past), original Foley sound effects and Billy Thompson’s reflective original compositions, which enfold Murray’s lyrics without so much as a sneeze.
But much of this presentation sits on Andrew Hull’s comfortable scene design like a lump of coal. You expect, and indeed experience, many of the production values for which Cygnet is known here — but too often, they’re wrapped in Cellophane, strewn with miscalculations and errors of omission. Again: Please do see the piece for all its many virtues, and remain hopeful that, with many revisions, it’ll be back next year.
This review is based on the opening night performance of Dec. 6. A Christmas Carol runs through Dec. 28 at The Old Town Theatre, 4040 Twiggs St. in Old Town (oddly enough). $37-$59. cygnettheatre.com, 619-337-1525.