By Karen Isaacs
A Christmas Carol – A Ghost Story of Christmas has returned to Hartford Stage for its 20th year of performances through Saturday, Dec. 30. Over that time, Bill Raymond was Scrooge 17 years.
But now, the role is in the very capable hands of Michael Preston and director Rachel Alderman.
If this is the first time you are seeing this show, it is as wonderful as ever. For the long-time fans of this production, there are some subtle changes.
Preston is terrific as Scrooge. Calling on his background with the Flying Karamazov Brothers he throws in a bit of juggling and some judicious physical comedy to the delight of the audience. He also makes Scrooge sterner in the beginning. Though he prepares us for Scrooge’s well known redemption, he doesn’t soften the man at the beginning. When he begrudges Bob Cratchit a lump of coal, his wages or refuses to donate to help the needy, there is no sense that this is a game that we should be in on. It is the man.
Over the years, Raymond had added too many winks to the early scenes; he made it not only more difficult to believe Scrooge was so nasty, but also made the redemption seem less like a “miracle.”
With Preston you are amazed at the transformation. While some of the cast from previous years return to their roles, new cast has joined the group. Yet even the returnees have evolved their characters in response to the new Scrooge. Noble Shropshire is even more tart as Scrooge’s housekeeper, Mrs. Dilber, and Robert Hannon Davis’ Bob Cratchit seems even more put-upon. Alan Rust returns as both Bert, the cider vendor and the Spirit of Christmas present. His good humor is in sharp contrast to Scrooge.
Added to the cast this year are Rebecka Jones as Betty Pidgeon, the doll vendor as well as the Spirit of Christmas Past and Old Josie. Her portrayals are spot on.
Director Rachel Alderman has used multi-racial casting throughout the production with Terrell Donnell Sledge playing both Scrooge at 30 and his nephew, Fred. His performance and those of Shauna Miles as Mrs. Fezziwig and Vanessa R. Butler as both Fred’s wife, and Belle, Scrooge’s one-time fiancé are good. Yet some audience members may be disconcerted by it all or wonder about the genetics involved.
It seemed to me that this production was crisper than usual; the credit goes to Alderman.
Once again the special effects – the lighting by Robert Wierzel, scenic design by Tony Straiges, costumes by Alejo Vietti, sound and original music by John Gromada and choreography by Hope Clarke are all excellent. And of course, the marvelous flying effects by ZFX, Inc. I hope they figure out a way to let Scrooge fly also. It is a matter of logistics since he is on stage so much but casn’t be in the flying harness the entire show.
Quibbles? That the voices of the children were hard to hear. But that is a minor complaint.
If you have never seen this production, remember the subtitle: A Ghost Story of Christmas. Ghosts play a major role in the piece and their masks and actions can be appropriately eerie. This may not be the right production for younger children or any child easily scared.
For all the rest of us, this is a wonderful gift to Connecticut. Even if you’ve seen it before, you should definitely see it again this holiday season.
It is at Hartford Stage, 50 Church Street through Dec. 30. For tickets visit Hartford Stage or call 860-527-5151.
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