Ford Theatre's fresh, edgy 'Christmas Carol' avoids usual cliches
By Peter Marks
Friday, December 3, 2010
Bless Edward Gero's performances, every one.
The versatile Gero brings the requisite sourness, gruffness and contrition to Ebenezer Scrooge, the Yuletide character every stage actor who lasts long enough in the business eventually gets around to playing. Surrounded by an ensemble of Washington stalwarts, Gero is the formidable anchor of Ford's Theatre's perennial seasonal serving of Dickens.
This version of "A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas" made its Ford's debut last year, and it returns with many of its leading players: Gero's Scrooge; the Cratchits of Christopher Bloch and Amy McWilliams; Felicia Curry and Anne Stone as glittery Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present, and a spectral Drew Eshelman, dragging the chains of the not-so-dearly-departed Jacob Marley.
Under Michael Baron's capable direction, they unfold a robustly spooky incarnation of the story, in an adaptation by Michael Wilson. The musical accent on this occasion is on the intermingling of this "Carol" with other well-known carols: Sprinkled over the evening are renditions of such familiar songs of the season as "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," "O Christmas Tree," "Good King Wenceslas" and "O Come, All Ye Faithful."
Just as the tunes instantly can put you in a holiday frame of mind, there's something about the frequent retelling of this cold-then-warm story that lightens American hearts at this time of year. Perhaps the tale of a greedy man of means who learns the lesson of generosity rings even truer than usual nowadays: You can't help but notice in Wilson's treatment that the toast Scrooge comes up with at one point is, "Here's to a quick foreclosure!" Scrooge's impoverished debtors, too, are accorded ample stage time, providing for a redemptive closing scene that might even bring a tear to the eye of an administrator of the Troubled Assets Relief Program.
The creative team devises a visually appealing production with a few crafty special effects, particularly in the scene in which Marley materializes in the terrified Scrooge's bedroom and performs some mischief with the furniture. As in Ford's last offering, the '50s Broadway romantic comedy "Sabrina Fair," the scenery is satisfyingly eye-filling; the Ford's stage has never been dressed so well.
Set designer Lee Savage constructs a streetscape over which is suspended a series of arches that suggests the early Industrial Age. The carts of the street vendors are enjoyable embellishments, as is the motorized contraption driven by a clock seller played by Stephen F. Schmidt.
Though the production runs almost two hours, the carols and the effects represent a dependable stimulus package for the imaginations of your little ones. Things do get a little creepy with the arrival of the ghost from the future, a being out of Edward Gorey's macabre sketchbook. But a sweetness asserts itself as well, particularly in the performances of the children, who all come across as authentic and not cloyingly theatrical. The evening of course cries out for an adorable Tiny Tim, and that job requirement is grandly met by Stephen Scholl, who alternates in the part with Nicholas Snipes.
The adults, similarly, avoid the traps in "A Christmas Carol" of excessive portentousness and sentimentality. Somehow, Eshelman develops moments of drollery for the lugubrious Marley, and Bloch applies a tenderly solicitous varnish to Bob Cratchit. Curry and Stone prove to be lively Christmas spirits, and Rick Hammerly makes for a buoyant major domo at the Fezziwigs' sprightly feast. You need, naturally, a Scrooge of emotional and technical dexterity, and Gero fills the bill on both scores, giving us a man who credibly has the blinders of callousness and selfishness lifted from his eyes.
Listless moments do intrude, in a few sluggish dialogue scenes, but this adaptation of "Christmas Carol" makes quick recoveries. When the incidental roles are portrayed by such accomplished actors as Tom Story, Helen Hedman and Erin Driscoll, even the most predictable features of an oft-told tale can be virtues.
A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas by Charles Dickens, adapted by Michael Wilson. Directed by Michael Baron. Costumes, Alejo Vietti; lighting, Rui Rita; choreography, Shea Sullivan; original music and sound, Josh Schmidt; wigs, Charles G. LaPointe; choral direction, Jay Crowder; dialects, Leigh Wilson Smiley. With Bligh Voth, Steven Carpenter, Michael Bunce, Brooke Bloomquist, Jamie Eacker, Jacob Yeh. About two hours.