Review: A Christmas Carol at the Ahmanson
The 2021 touring production of A Christmas Carol offers a new spin on Dickens’ classic, with in-theatre effects that immerse audiences in holiday spirit.
As its subtitle (“A Ghost Story of Christmas”) informs its readers, Charles Dicken’s classic tale is a combination of spook show and redemptive fable – one so well known that it presents a challenge to would-be adaptations. The 2021 touring production of A Christmas Carol, the latest iteration of Jack Thorne’s celebrated stage adaptation, jumps the hurdles inherent in retelling a familiar story that audiences easily recall in general if not in specifics. Thorne’s strategy is to revise the details – condensing, deleting, augmenting – thus providing surprises around every corner even while running down the familiar path. Some of the alterations are new; some have been tried before; and some work better than others. Thorne’s spin is less about ghosts, supernatural intervention, and the redemptive power of the Christmas Spirit than about being haunted by the past and coming to terms with it. How well one enjoys this interpretation depends on how open one is to a new take on the old story, because this version of A Christmas Carol is at its best when it diverges farthest from the original.
On opening night at the Ahmanson in Los Angeles, there seemed to be a few missed cues and some awkwardness from the youngest performer, along with a sense of disappointment over what had been omitted from the story. Fortunately, the second act caught the seasonal spirit with some help from director Thomas Caruso, who recaptures some of the immersive feel of director Matthew Warchus’s original staging of the play at London’s Old Vic Theatre in 2017. The result is rousing finish that satisfies beyond expectations, not only wrapping up the story but also wrapping the audience into the story when the action leaps off the stage and lights up the theatre like a glorious Christmas display.
Warning: Minor spoilers are scattered throughout the following staves. Those interested only in reading whether this production of A Christmas Carol is worth seeing, are advised to scroll down to the Bottom Line assessment.
A Christmas Carol at the Ahmanson Review, Stave 1: Marley’s Ghost
Considering its title, it is understandable adaptations of A Christmas Carol have frequently emphasized songs and music, and the Ahmanson production is no exception. In fact, it is virtually a musical, though not in the traditional Broadway sense. Before the opening curtain (a figure of speech – there is no actual curtain), the show begins when costumed characters arrive on stage and begin performing live music on violin and bass, their numbers gradually increasing to include accordion, piccolo, bells, and vocals. When the play itself begins, the musicians (who serve double-duty as actors) become a sort of Greek chorus, offering narration to fill in the exposition (which allows Thorne to utilize memorable passages of Dickens prose, such as the famous opening line: “Marley was dead: to begin with”). Throughout the rest of the evening, their musical accompaniment – whether traditional or original, instrumental or vocal, on stage or off – will underline the action, adding an extra layer to the emotional beats in the story.
The significance of this contribution becomes rapidly apparent during the opening scene in Scrooge’s office. The carolers who interrupt Scrooge’s work are combined with the gentlemen seeking charitable contributions for the poor; the usual interaction between Scrooge (Bradley Whiftord), Bob Cratchit (Dashielf Eaves), and Scrooge’s nephew, Fred (Brandon Gill) is highly condensed. All of this is designed to get through the opening setup as quickly as possible before moving on to the encounter with Marley’s Ghost, which itself is considerably truncated. (Despite Scrooge’s initial skepticism, including the famous line “There’s more of gravy than of grave about you,” Marley does not have to do much to convince Ebenezer that he’s a genuine apparition). With events moving so quickly, the chorus of musicians fill in the blanks and smooth over the transitions, keeping the audience engaged in a narrative eager to jump over familiar material.
Marley’s appearance underlines the extent to which the play also relies on Rob Howell’s set design to make its point. The chains that bind Marley in death (as they will eventually bind Scrooge) are visually echoed in dozens of chains dangling from the rafters, embedded in what appears to be piles of junk on stage but which on closer inspection are old, unlit lamps, suggesting the metaphoric weight anchoring Scrooge to his dark and dreary life. These are balanced by the hundreds of lamps suspended overhead, symbolizing the light of Christmas.
In between, Scrooge is suspended in an undefined limbo, walls and rooms suggested only by rectangles that emerge from the floor to represent doors through which characters make their entrances and exits, moving from one empty space to the next. Consequently, the story seems to take place in a sort of metaphysical landscape, where the various excursions to past, present, and future are less a matter of time travel than of soul-searching – a point underlined by a narrative twist at the end.
A Christmas Carol at the Ahmanson Review, Stave 2: The First Spirit
Not for the first time, the Spirit of Christmas Past is performed by a woman (Kate Burton), but this is more than a matter of diversity; she provides a maternal counterpoint, alternately supportive and scolding, to the major male presence in this portion of the play – a strategy that will be further developed in later scenes.
Meanwhile, the play jumps one of the hurdles facing any adaptation: in Dickens’ story, the main character is often a passive observer, watching the various scenes shown to him by the spirits. Another actor (Harry Thornton) briefly appears as the young Ebenezer, but then Whitford takes over, and the change is more than a matter of giving the star more lines. Scrooge is no longer merely observing the past; he is reliving it – another suggestion that this version of the story is a mental journey, a sort of extended therapy session, with the spirits acting as ministering angels.
This interpretation is underlined by one of Thorne’s several additions, turning Scrooge’s father from an off-screen presence (as in the book) into a major supporting character (played by Hoch in a dual role). His presence provides part of a psychological explanation for Ebenezer, rooted in his unhappy childhood: not only did the elder Scrooge send his young son off to a lonely life at boys school; he later berated the young man for not earning enough money and for frittering what little he did earn on frivolous presents for his sister, Fan (Glory Yepassis-Zembrou).
The play takes another step in this direction with its depiction of Scrooge’s fiancé, Belle (who, as in the 1970 film musical, Scrooge, is Fezziwig’s daughter). In this version, she doesn’t break up with Scrooge after he has turned to greed; she leaves him for another man while he is out making the fortune he thinks necessary to make her happy. This comes perilously close to blaming Belle for Scrooge’s misery. Dickens’ Scrooge was an embodiment of the Puritan Work Ethic, in which earning money was its own reward and spending money was a waste. Thorne’s Scrooge had been planning to buy a horse and carriage for his bride-to-be; only after he was jilted did he become a miserly tightwad convinced that “those things don’t matter.”
A Christmas Carol at the Ahmanson Review, Stave 3: The Second Spirit
Perhaps understandably, being reminded that Belle jilted him does little to warm Scrooge’s cold heart, so the Spirit of Christmas Present has her work cut out for her. The character has been reimagined as a blind, black woman with a Jamaican accent. (This is one of many instances of color-blind casting, which the text never addresses, perhaps because, in a fantasy about spirits visiting past, present, and future, there’s nothing very remarkable about Scrooge having a black sister and nephew.)
In any case, Alex Newell gives a boisterous performance that invigorates her scenes as she spars with Scrooge, who is proudly defiant in Thorton’s script, refusing to take to heart the lessons she is trying to convey. This adds dramatic sparks, but it also shifts the story’s emphasis.
Consequently, the poor Cratchit family does not carry the weight they usually do. No longer a lame boy who succumbs to an unspecified ailment, Tiny Tim instead drowns after slipping while waiting for his father to return home from work; his death is less the result of poverty than of his father’s long work-hours. (Perhaps this is Thornton’s way of dealing with the unlikelihood of 19th century medicine being able to save Tim, no matter how much money was thrown at his illness.)
Again, this diminishes the dramatic impact of story points meant to change Scrooge’s heart, so it’s easy to believe that Scrooge remains unmoved. In fact, Whitford sells Scrooge’s defiance so well that, when he turns away from Christmas Present and proclaims himself unrepentant (“I am a great man!”), it almost feels as if A Christmas Carol is over when the Ahmanson’s house lights go up, leaving Scrooge his old, mingy self.
A Christmas Carol at the Ahmanson Review, Stave 4: The Last Spirit
Much as the act break almost feels like a subversive ending designed to contradict the original intent with a dose of modern cynicism (who really believes the Grinch can grow a heart of gold?), the audience knows there is more to come. However, this raises a question: at this point in Dickens’ text, the story is nearly over – only more more Spirit to go before Scrooge’s re-awakening. How is the play going to stretch this out into a second act?
The answer is that Act Two of A Christmas Carol takes the biggest departures from the source material, expanding on ideas and characters to create something very new. Things begin with deceptive familiarity as the Spirit of Christmas Future approaches the still unrepentant Scrooge. Described by the Chorus and seen only in silhouette – not a single figure but an apparent multitude, like reflections in a fun house mirror – the intimidating figure is soon replaced by something altogether unexpected: Scrooge’s dead sister Fran arrives to reveal the the future. This completes a female triumvirate of Christmas Spirits tending to Scrooge’s reclamation, as if a nurturing feminine principle is counteracting the masculine mishandling administered by Scrooge’s father. With the eventual reappearance of Marley, the quartet of ghosts form a sort of family unit. With sister Fran acting as Christmas Future and Marley standing in for Scrooge’s father (played by the same actor, remember), we are left to wonder whether the Spirit of Christmas Past may be Scrooge’s mother; she is at least a surrogate if not the real thing.
In any case, the play skips over the usual business of Scrooge only gradually realizing that his future self is dead and no one cares. Instead, he instantly recognizes the coffin onstage as his and registers little dismay, as this is the future that awaits everyone. The trick here is that, instead of hearing the cackling of people happy to cash in on his death, Scrooge hears eulogies delivered by Fred, Bob, and Belle, all of whom continued to love – or at least tried to love – the lost soul hiding behind Scrooge’s misanthropic exterior.
This approach is full of potential, but it falls a little flat because, although we have seen Scrooge suffer, we have seen little hint of any warmth beneath the cold exterior. Fred’s speech in the opening scene, about the inspiring nature of Christmas, is usually a moment when a chink in Scrooge’s armor is revealed, foreshadowing his eventual redemption, but in this version Scrooge barely acknowledges Fred’s words, let alone admits their powerful effect. Nevertheless, Scrooge sees the errors of his ways, leading to the joyous conclusion of A Christmas Carol.
A Christmas Carol at the Ahmanson Review, Stave 5: The End of It
Scrooge’s awakening is the highlight of this version of A Christmas Carol. Much of the familiar action is jettisoned – no “remarkable boy” is sent to deliver a prize turkey to the Cratchit family. Instead, Scrooge has a heartfelt scene with Belle, which offers closure on (rather than a resumption of) their relationship (she is happily married with children but glad to see the change in him). This is the best dramatic scene in the play, a wonderful payoff that justifies the additional emphasis Thorne has placed on the character.
After that, the play breaks out of the stage and expands into the whole theatre. Fred appears in a balcony seat when Scrooge arrives to take him up on his offer of Christmas dinner (Brandon Gill’s surprise at the unexpected guest is palpably funny). Snow falls from the rafters, dousing the audience with good vibes. The ominous chains attached to the floor rise, lifting lovely Christmas bells that join the glowing lanterns above. As Scrooge plans a feast for the Cratchits, characters run up and down the aisles delivering food items, which are anachronistically attributed to locations familiar to Los Angeles residents, further eroding the Fourth Wall as Whitford breaks character to deliver a series of jokes: The produce from Beverly Hills must be checked for freshness because everyone there pretends to be younger than they are. The oranges are from the County of Orange (i.e., Orange County), which is only a short distance away, but the journey is “soul-crushing.”
It is here that Whitford shines most brightly. His defiant Scrooge in the first act is so implacably walled off from humanity that it is hard to relate to him even as a bad guy; he is not a man you love to hate. When Scrooge turns “giddy as a drunken man,” Whitford becomes a delight, cavorting in ways that are silly but endearing, capturing the awkwardness of a man unused to feeling or expressing joy and perhaps even fearing that he does not deserve it.
One of the finer points of Thorton’s script is that it dares ask whether Scrooge does indeed deserve his happiness. After a lifetime of inflicting misery on others, why should he be granted a lifetime of happiness by spending a night with a few spirits? The answer to the question lies in a little surprise near the end – a variation on The Last Temptation of Christ (The Last Redemption of Scrooge?), which depicts Scrooge’s happy ending as a potential future he must earn.
The singular achievement of this fine finale is the way it expands the play beyond mere storytelling. The plot is really over once Scrooge has awakened, redeemed. All that is left is to give the audience some visceral satisfaction in the character’s transformation, allowing them, too, to feel uplifted by the joy of the Christmas season. The ending of A Christmas Carol hits all the right notes, like the closing refrain from a lavish musical, which recapitulates and magnifies the emotional catharsis of the resolution, sending audiences out of the theatre with a song in their hearts.
This rousing climax was extended even further on opening night at the Ahmanson, when the cast reassembled after the curtain call for a tribute to Broadway great Stephen Sondheim, who had died four days earlier. Whitford said a few words about Sondheim’s impact and influence on everyone involved in the production and noted the irony of celebrating a great Jewish lyricist by performing an instrumental Christmas carol. As mismatched as the paring might have seemed, it was a tremendously heartfelt moment that provided a perfect conclusion to the evening.
A Christmas Carol rating
The touring version of Jack Thorne’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol, starring Bradley Whitford, offers a substantially revised version of the famous tale by Dickens. The script omits familiar material in favor of original scenes, which disappoints expectations but also offers a few satisfying surprises. The set design provides an intriguing landscape for the story, which is enhanced by original music and traditional carols delightfully performed by cast members on stage. The multi-ethnic cast is not always well served by a script that sometimes seems in too big a hurry to rush past well-known scenes, but Alex Newell and Brandon Gill infuse their characters with winning enthusiasm.
In the lead role, Whitford plays an implacably defiant Scrooge who seems so impervious to redemption that he risks losing audience empathy, but when he finally turns away from the dark side, he sells the transformation beyond all expectations. Ultimately, the best touches of this adaptation are the most original, especially the glorious finale which breaks down the Fourth Wall and engulfs the audience in the action, making everyone feel like a part of the celebration of the redemptive power of Christmas. Whatever quibbles one might have over Thorne’s approach to the material, his stage adaptation offers an intriguing and fresh exploration of an iconic character, and as satisfying as the ending is, it leaves room for thought after leaving the theatre.
A Christmas Carol
continues at the Ahmanson through New Year’s Day, with nightly performances Tuesdays through Sundays, plus matinees on weekends. Update: As of December 21, all performances have been cancelled because some members of the company tested positive for Covid-19. The address is at 135 N Grand Avenue in Los Angeles. Covid-19 precautions are enforced; masks and proof of vaccination are required. For more information, visit the Center Theatre Group’s website.
Credits: Adapted by Jack Thorne from the novella by Charles Dickens. Sets & Costumes designed by Rob Howell. Lighting design by Hugh Vanstone. Sound design by Simon Baker. Composer-Arranger-Orchestrator: Christopher Nightingale. Directed by Thomas Caruso. Production originally conceived and directed by Matthew Warchus.
Cast: Bradley Whitford, Kate Burton, Alex Newell, Chante Carmel, Dashiell Eaves, Brandon Gill, Evan Harrington, Chris Hoch, Sarah Hunt, Alex Nee, Sebastian Ortiz, Cade Robertson, Brett Ryback, Harry Thornton, Glory Yepassis-Zembrou, Grace Yoo.