Review: A Christmas Carol at a Noise Within
Dickens’ immortal classic done right!
The production of A Christmas Carol currently on stage at Pasadena’s A Noise Within theatre proves the wisdom of respecting the source material. Geoff Elliott’s adaptation, which has been winning accolades for over two decades, hews close to Dickens’s novelette: instead of attempting to reimagine or reinvent the story, the play focuses on getting the text off the page and onto the stage in an imaginative way that brings the story’s most cherished moments to delightful life.
Thanks to clever staging and engaging performances, even fans who know the story so well that they anticipate every line will find themselves falling under the beguiling spell cast by the yuletide spirits. It’s a bit like attending a concert where the entire audience is mouthing along with the lyrics not for nostalgia’s sake but because the musical arrangements have reinvigorated the material for a new generation. Newcomers and old-timers alike will have a wonderful time.
A Noise Within’s A Christmas Carol Review: A Tale of Two Scrooges
A Noise Within’s version of A Christmas Carol deserves to be evaluated on its own merits, but in this case, avoiding comparisons would be ignoring the proverbial elephant in the room – or, more precisely, in the Ahmanson Theatre. The touring production of Jack Thorne’s adaptation currently being staged in downtown Los Angeles has the benefit of a Broadway pedigree and a recognized television star in the lead, not to mention the cultural cache of its presence in the Music Center; it’s obviously the more high profile of the two Christmas Carols, but ultimately A Noise Within’s version is more satisfying.
The two productions certainly share much in common. Both use narration to bridge the narrative transitions with excerpts from the text. Both use music to underline the storytelling, including bells rung by hand. Both have actors performing double duty as foreground characters and members of the background ensemble. Both use color-blind casting in supporting roles. Both use simple set pieces and appear and disappear from the stage to effect quick scene transitions, and both extend the action off the stage and into the audience, creating an immersive effect.
However, the differences are even more striking. A Noise Within offers traditional depictions of its famous characters. Its presentation relies on a single narrator addressing the audience, instead of having the ensemble act as a sort of Greek Chorus, and its production is a full-blown musical, with characters breaking out into song – unlike the Ahmanson, where the ensemble provides instrumental and vocal performances as a sort of underscoring.
Most significantly, the action at the Ahmanson seems rushed, as if hurrying past the story’s memorable moments in order to get to new material added by the playwright. At A Noise Within, these moments are treated as the highlights they are, milked for all their worth, like a high note held an extra beat by a talented singer to the delight of an appreciative audience.
An example that perhaps best sums up the differences between the two approaches is the appearance of Marley’s Ghost in both plays. Marley arrives almost without preamble at the Ahmanson as if the play is rushing to get to the good stuff, but although he cuts a striking figure, his scene is severely truncated: he is used like a prop to make a plot point that sets up what follows; his appearance carries little emotional weight for Scrooge or the audience.
At A Noise Within, Marley’s appearance is an amazing coup de théâtre. From the back of the theatre, he walks down the aisle; the three chains binding him at arms and waist are suspended from a balcony, dangling over the heads of the audience as he prowls back and forth across the stage, his cadaverous appearance grandly spooktacular enough to believably convince Scrooge of his existence. When his time on Earth is done, the chains pull him off the stage and back up the aisle until he leaves our orbit of attention and we are left, like Scrooge, contemplating the import of his manifestation.
The scene works in a number of ways. It not only sets up the plot; it sets the tone. We feel the gravity of the situation – the fact that we have moved into a supernal realm where miracles are possible – which ultimately include not only ghostly manifestations but also spiritual reclamation of a cold, hard-hearted old sinner.
Additionally, Marley’s arrival down the aisle, followed by his dangling chains, breaks the fourth wall, yielding an immersive impact that leaves the audience feeling as if they are almost rubbing shoulders with the characters – an impact enhanced by the layout of the theatre, which extends the stage into the audience. This tactic is repeated several times in A Christmas Carol, adding texture to familiar scenes, as when a silent woman ascends from the aisle, the long train of her dress completely covering the stage, where it becomes the fabric the Cratchit family is sewing to augment Bob’s meagre income. Presumably, the silent woman, her back to the characters, represents the ultimate owner of the dress, unaware of the toil and suffering that went into her finery, her indifference a visual manifestation of Scrooge’s attitude toward the poor.
A Noise Within’s A Christmas Carol Review: Conclusion
Comparisons aside, how does the version of A Christmas Carol at A Noise Within stand on its own terms? It’s enjoyable from start to finish. The scene changes, with the ensemble pushing set pieces on and off stage, are deftly handled, which keeps the pace quick without seeming rushed, while the narration fills in the exposition, allowing the dialogue scenes to focus on the drama.
The three Spirits of Christmas are immediately identifiable without being generic. Deborah Strang and Alan Blumenfeld invest the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present with winning personalities. In an interesting departure, The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come (silently embodied by Jose Donada) is not the familiar figure suggesting Father Time or the Grim Reaper but more akin to a mythical tree creature, with bare branches for hands instead of skeletal fingers. All of them are striking enough to convincingly effect Scrooge’s change of heart.
As played by Geoff Elliott (who also co-directs with Julia Rodriguez-Elliott), Scrooge himself is the archetypal miser, devoted to a Puritan work ethic in which money is its own reward, and actually spending it to enjoy oneself is simply out of the question. More important, he captures the hints laid in the story that Scrooge, despite his implacable exterior, is a pretty miserable old man from the outset.
The point is clearly made in an early scene that lays the groundwork for Scrooge’s redemption. in response to his nephew’s soliloquy about the joy of Christmas, Scrooge cannot muster even a “Bah! Humbug!” but instead admits that Fred is a powerful speaker. Elliott and Rafael Goldstein sell the moment in a way that makes us understand why Fred would keep making the yearly pilgrimage to his uncle even while failing to make much headway: there is a chink, just a tiny one, in the armor of a man whose repeated use of “Bah! Humbug!” is a defense mechanism protecting the wounded soul inside.
Our only quibble with this production of A Christmas Carol is that, although most of the songs are fine, one or two do not really enhance the narrative. In particular, the pawnshop scene in the future is not the sort of emotional moment that needs to be extended and amplified by having the characters vocalize their feelings about it. It feels like a distraction from Scrooge’s gradual realization of the awful fate in store for him if he does not change his ways – a sort of time-out before the scales finally fall from his eyes.
Otherwise, the show is beautifully done. If you see only one production of A Christmas Carol this season, it should be this one.
A Christmas Carol at a Noise Within Rating
Proving the wisdom of respecting the source material, Geoff Elliott’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol gets the text off the page and onto the stage in way that beguiles from start to finish, thanks to great performances, deft staging, enjoyable songs, and some very clever theatrical effects.
A Christmas Carol continues at A Noise Within through December 23. Performances take places Thursday through Sunday, starting at 7pm most nights, with 2pm matinees on weekends and some week days; check the box office to be sure. Proof of vaccination and masks are required; children under 12 will be permitted with a negative Covid test result. The address is 3352 E. Foothill Boulevard in Pasadena, 91107. For more information, visit: anoisewithin.org.
Directors: Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott. Scenic Design: Jeanine A. Ringer. Costume Design: Angela Balogh Calin. Lighting Design: Ken Booth. Original Music & Sound Design: Robert Oriol. Stage Manager: Samantha Sintef. Hair and Wig Stylist: Klint Flowers. Music Director: Dr. Melissa Sky-Eagle. Scenic Painter: Orlando de la Paz. Props Master: Sydney Russell. Dialect Coach: Tracy Winters. Assistant Stage Manager: Kayla Hammett. Light Board Operator: Jacob Houser.
Ebenezer Scrooge: Geoff Elliott.
Narrator: Frederick Stuart
Ghost of Christmas Past / Ensemble: Deborah Strang
Ghost of Christmas Present / Ensemble: Alan Blumenfeld
Marley / Ensemble: Jeremy Rabb
Mr. Cratchit / Ensemble: Kasey Mahaffy
Mrs. Cratchit / Ensemble: Emily Kosloski
Fred / Ensemble: Rafael Goldstein
Fred’s Wife / Ensemble: Sydney A. Mason
Belle / Ensemble: Roshni Shukla
Martha Cratchit / Ensemble: Gioya Tuma-Waku
Peter Cratchit / Ensemble: Darius De La Cruz
Cratchit Child / Ensemble: Stella Bullock
Cratchit Child / Ensemble: Amalia “Molly” Morris
Cratchit Child / Ensemble: Kwayi Grimstad Ndjamen
Cratchit Child / Ensemble: Clara Duffy
Tiny Tim / Ensemble: Aarush Mehta
Youngest Scrooge: Freddy Duffy
Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come / Ensemble: José Donado
Ensemble: Andrea Somera
Tiny Tim: Clara Duffy
Ghost of Christmas Present / Marley / Ensemble u/s: Bert Emmett