A CHRISTMAS CAROL: A GHOST STORY OF CHRISTMAS
Adapted by Michael Wilson with Original Direction by Matt August
Original Staging Recreated by Mark Ramont
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
There’s a reason for the standing ovation at the end. Experiencing Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol at the Ford’s Theatre is thrilling.It’s more than the spectacular technical effects: Rumbling thunder with forked lightning, fog creeping under doors, tolling bells, ticking clocks, and dramatic lighting, all perfectly timed. It’s the fact that this English-American classic is performed by a uniformly excellent cast in a theater of great personal and historic significance.Before the play started, I liked the way Broadway actor, Richard Poe, new to the cast this year as Ebenezer Scrooge, acknowledged the past with an upward glance and nod of his head toward President Lincoln’s flag-draped box. This is the Ford Theatre, a tragic place, where a 90-minute play, promising forgiveness, redemption and hope, is about to begin. In furling cape, Poe enters first as the author Charles Dickens in about 1868. He reads the opening lines of his novella in resonant tones that send chills to the spine: “Marley is dead.” It’s Christmas Eve and carolers sing “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” The day marks the seven year anniversary of the death of Scrooge’s business partner. Both partners sacrificed family life, friendship and their humanity to avarice. Hoarding money is all that matters. Most of us know the story but often we do not see such a balanced enactment with Christmas carols used as scene bridges. So here goes with the high points: In the counting house, Scrooge updates records as he sits on a towering desk, over chained safes and trunks with his gold and possessions. The lighting is dim and foreboding. He rebuffs his nephew Fred’s and Bob Cratchit’s greetings with “Bah Humbug.” Scrooge is behaving like his name that has become a noun in the dictionary: a mean-spirited, selfish, miserly person.
A backdrop of lighted townhouses represents a connection to London street life. “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” is heard, an ironic contrast to Scrooge’s debt collections. He’s no angel as he intimidates everyone. He claims the contents of the Doll Vendor’s cart. He seizes the clock maker’s unique invention as collateral for nonpayment. After he repels a beggar woman, she cries, “Your time will come,” and a voice-over picks up the foreboding refrain. Bells toll midnight. Dressed in his night shirt, Marley, laden with chains and remorse, arrives from hell. He warns Scrooge of the hourly visits from three ghosts.Good melodrama insists on the innate goodness in people. Good must triumph over evil. And this production makes Scrooge’s reformation highly theatrical. The three ghosts force Scrooge to time travel to the past, present and future. In this production, the Ghost of Christmas Past, a small person with a child’s unwrinkled face, makes a spectacular aerial entrance. Christmas Past goads Scrooge into facing what was. Unwanted by his father, Scrooge spent a friendless and lonely boyhood in a boarding school. Yet one person, his sister, was warm and kind. She died young but left behind a nephew, Fred, whom Scrooge spurns in the present. Another theatrical highpoint in this Michael Wilson adaptation is Scrooge’s memory of his first apprenticeship with the Fezziwigs. Warmly lit dancers in red and green cavort around a May Pole, to a reprise of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” The fertility dance in mid-winter is also a mating dance. And Ebenezer, who now works over a desk with fewer trunks and safes, falls in love with Belle, a dowerless seamstress. Ultimately, Scrooge’s worship of wealth drives her away into domestic family bliss with another man. Scrooge is left alone, agonized.Next, Scrooge is visited by the Ghost of Christmas Present, a god of wine and fertility on stilts. Dressed in a motley cloak of red and green, this statuesque figure represents Christmas as a joyful, pagan Roman holiday. The Ghost, goblet in hand, gives Scrooge a nip.
The possibility of Scrooge’s change to come is a wonderful moment. “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” takes us into Bob Cratchit’s home life. In spite of their poverty from Scrooge’s low wages, the Cratchit family represents ideal togetherness. But the family of four children is threatened by the loss of crippled Tiny Tim, who enters on his father’s shoulders. “Greensleeves,” a more somber carol, sung by the family darkens the mood. And the Ghost of Christmas Present mocks Scrooge by telling him that Tiny Tim will die. But after the Cratchit family joins in the mocking, Tiny Tim utters his ironic line, “God bless us every one!”All the commentary is not lost on Scrooge. He sees his exploited victims ridicule him in his nephew’s home as well. When the Ghost of Christmas Present serves as a holiday tree and Fred and his friends play the mind reading game, Scrooge comments: “You’re not as amusing as you may think.” A change is taking place. Melodrama usually works in sharp contrasts. Social commentary is always part of the Dickensian world. A scene with a moral message follows a light hearted one. The lighting darkens the stage. And Ebenezer and the Spirit meet two haggard looking children, Ignorance and Want, two allegorical twins, personifications of
The Ford’s production is a well-paced show right up to the frightening entrance of the Ghost of Christmas Future in billowing, black cape. What a great entrance. All technical atmospheric effects come into play and crescendo. Scrooge confronts Tiny Tim’s corpse and a family in grief, if he doesn’t do something. After that, Scrooge goes through a miraculous change. Richard Poe, an actor from New York, whose Broadway credits include The Pajama Game (2006 Tony Award winner for Best Revival of a Musical), M. Butterfly, and 1776, brings to life an Ebenezer Scrooge, aptly despicable but one who also displays a sense of humor and zest for life. When Scrooge reforms his ways, he does a somersault on stage. Alone at night in his nightshirt, he kisses the floor and promises that “Mankind will be my business from now on.”Scrooge explains his change into a philanthropist as a great mystery. After he rewards Bob Cratchit with a raise, he takes Tiny Tim to the best doctors and becomes his second father. He invites his nephews to dinner. He releases all his debtors from debt and invites them to his house for his Christmas gathering. Redemption, forgiveness and generosity lead to the renewal of life.The ending, heralded by “Angels We Have Heard On High,” warms even the hardest of hearts. If Ebenezer Scrooge is capable of redemption, there’s hope for everyone. “God Bless Us Everyone.” May every household should be haunted with the spirits from the Ford Theatre’s ghost story. Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas, continues through December 30, 2006 at Ford’s Theatre, 511 Tenth Street, N.W., Washington D.C. 20004. Performances: Tuesday–Sunday, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Sunday matinees, 2:30 p.m.; Wednesday, Thursday, 12 noon, only on November 29, 30, December 6, 7, 13, 14. Tickets: $30-$55. Discounts for 20 or more. For more information, call box office: 202-347-4833, group sales at 202-638-2367.Ticketmaster: 1-800-551.SEAT; 202-397-7328;, or visit www.fordstheatre.org.