Inside the gorgeous brick edifice of the new Chesapeake Shakespeare Company home in Baltimore rises another brick edifice, this one made out of flat, painted wood but no less impressive. The handsome facades of both the real and the stage-set buildings suggest a bygone Baltimore: stately, hospitable, civilized. CSC’s new digs are an ideal home for Ian Gallanar’s Charm City-set adaptation of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the company’s third production in the space since opening it this past September.
As you walk in to the refurbished 19th century structure – formerly the Mercantile Deposit and Trust Company bank – you’re greeted by the warm sounds of carolers decked in some of Kristina Lambdin’s wintry, lovely period costumes, standing on that grand rowhouse set designed by Daniel O’Brien, delivering versions of “Good King Wenceslas” or “Go Tell it On the Mountain” under the fine musical direction of Scott Farquhar. Various nooks around the outside of the plush three-story space offer amenities such as concessions, books and a children’s playroom, much like little gifts arranged around the Christmas tree. And although Shakespeare is this company’s main offering, it’s hard to believe the space wasn’t designed for Carol, what with its original ornate, gift-box colored recessed ceiling up above and the deep, holiday red of its absurdly comfortable folding bench seats all around.
The sense you get is that the play itself does not comprise the entirety of what Gallanar is trying to present here (he directs the show as well), but rather that he hopes to bring the whole community into a pageant of sorts. The layout of the space and the number of children present lead to an atypical amount of wandering and chatting pre-show, while those carolers sing onstage; there is plenty of time given to get to your seats before the play begins and at the end of intermission (when even more caroling happens); audience members are encouraged to attend one of the two bars which remains open during the show to get a drink or to adjourn with their kids into the screen-equipped playroom if the young ones get too restless.
Gallanar takes the time to introduce the show and CSC preshow himself; he comes on again at intermission to read out the winners of a raffle (for a bottle of wine and a T-shirt, respectively); the actors remain on stage after the bows to talk and take pictures with the audience.
That is not to say that the Carol itself is a perfunctory or afterthought experience, just that it is the major part of a greater whole. In Gallanar’s adaptation, it is transported to Baltimore, 1843, and while the change of location does little either good or bad to the story itself, it does contribute to the communal feeling of the production, and allows a few good winks at local history and landmarks.
Even as an American, Ebenezer Scrooge remains the familiar old money-grubber who goes on a journey from penny-pinching crank to open-hearted Christmas celebrant in the course of one night’s review of his life with the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet To Come. In Gregory Burgess’ expressive personage, he is quite sympathetic from the beginning, his anti-holiday spirit clearly his way of lashing out from within his own loneliness, and his stinginess more defensive than greedy. Burgess’ characterization is large and extroverted but not melodramatic, and it’s a pleasure to watch the bright-hearted man he hides under the early Scrooge’s rough exterior come out shining over the course of the story.
Gallanar maintains a fair bit of the literary touches of Dickens’ original that are often lost in more familiar versions. Beginning with the warm presence of Tim R. Bentrim at show’s start, various actors step in as narrators to set the Victorian scene or outline Scrooge’s bedtime ritual, in language surprisingly advanced for what might otherwise be considered a children’s show. As well, Gallanar willfully follows the show into its darker places, himself contributing a sound design that, with O’Brien’s sometimes bloody and smoky lighting design, often audibly frighten some of the younger children in the audience. (In particular, the appearance of Ignorance and Want personified as children – another oft-excised piece of the original – and Scrooge’s grave are quite moody.) There is some tension in the production between the friendly carols-and-open-bars environment and the occasional terror that Scrooge confronts on his journey; perhaps, however, this is the best way to convey the tough, classic emotional lessons of Dickens work to the young, in the comforting embrace of your friendly neighborhood theatre company.
Nearly everyone in the large ensemble besides Burgess does double or triple or quadruple duty, and it’s always clear who is who; to single out too few of the impressive cast, Laura Rocklyn and Daniel Flint give committed portrayals of the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present, respectively, and Kecia A. Campbell is a ringer in the ensemble, particularly in her pained rendition of Coventry Carol as a mourning mother.
A CHRISTMAS CAROL
Closes December 23, 2014
Chesapeake Shakespeare Company
7 South Calvert Street
Baltimore, MD 21202
2 hours 15 minutes with one intermission
Tickets: $15 – $48
Thursdays thru Sundays
Details and Tickets
The production moves swiftly, with particular credit to the stagehands who effect numerous large set changes without distracting from the narrators. The swiftness sometimes leaves certain key moments a bit too much in the dust, particularly during Scrooge’s time with the Ghost of Christmas Past, when it becomes easy to lose track of how Scrooge slowly became the man he did. Gallanar and company are clearly capable of creating deeply lived-in scenes, as in a luxuriously fun one spent with Scrooge’s nephew Fred (James Jager, passionately essaying a typically limp character) and his friends and family, so it is disappointing that the pacing is sometimes off. It’s a fairly long show for the children, admittedly, but perhaps some of the Baltimore-detailing narration could have been trimmed in favor of more of Scrooge’s past.
Ultimately, the show is less interested in finding a new twist on the old chestnut than it is in giving it a rich, buoyant setting, ideal for introducing young ones to the tale or giving old ones a fresh glimpse at the serious social and personal lessons underlying it, surprisingly just as relevant in yet another financially frenzied Christmas season as it was over 150 years ago.
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens . Adapted and directed by Ian Gallanar . Featuring Gregory Burgess, Michael P. Sullivan, James Jager, Travis Hudson, Martin Ealy, Scott Alan Small, Laura Rocklyn, Daniel Flint, Noah S. Williams, Vince Eisenson, Gerrad Alex Taylor, Tim R. Bintrim, John Rockefeller, Max Sullivan, Nigel C. Williams, Mia Boydston, Annabelle Fleming, Addison Helm, Solomon Robin, Noah Allen, Lesley Malin, Latia Stokes, Javier del Pilar, Carson Elizabeth Gregory, Molly Moores, Mary Myers, Kecia A. Campbell, Isadora Gallanar, Lea Simoni-Wastila, Nicholas Delaney, Isabelle Fleming, Dahlia Robin, and Josie Renkwitz .
Technical Director: Daniel O’Brien . Costume Designer: Kristina Lambdin . Production Stage Manager: Mary Hoffman Pohlig . Produced by Chesapeake Shakespeare Theatre . Reviewed by Brett Abelman.
A CHRISTMAS CAROL (Chesapeake Shakespeare)
Closes Dec 23
Charles Shubow . BroadwayWorld a holiday celebration for the entire family, one that we hope will be treasured for years to come.
Lynne Menefee . MDTheatreGuide a clever, local twist to Charles Dickens’ classic Christmas tale of redemption and generosity.
Henry Cyr . DCMetroTheaterArts a delightful evening