When you think of Ebenezer Scrooge, who comes to mind? Is it Alastair Sim? George C. Scott? Reginald Owen? Scrooge McDuck?
My favorite interpretation of Dickens's classic curmudgeon has always been Mr. Magoo's. Somehow, that nearsighted, dithering oddball of a cartoon character lent Scrooge just the right balance of mean-spiritedness and eccentricity. Despite his initial crankiness, you had to feel for him as he lay quaking in his bed, petrified by the succession of Christmas ghosts. And in the end, as he burbled to Tiny Tim, Magoo managed to transform Ebenezer into one lovable old imp.
For "A Christmas Carol" to work its magic completely, Scrooge must undergo a major metamorphosis, serving as both villain and hero in this heartwarming story of redemption. That essential shift in character is just what's missing from John William Cooke's portrayal of Scrooge in Ford's Theatre's presentation of the holiday tale; for all its detail and charm, the production doesn't quite pack the emotional wallop it should.
Cooke, a patrician-looking fellow with a pleasant, well-modulated speaking voice, has no problem playing Scrooge-the-reformed. He's very convincing as a repentant sinner, and absolutely adorable when kicking up his heels and planting a Christmas kiss on his bewildered housekeeper's cheek. It's the persnickety stuff, the miserly, Humbuggy bluster that gets short shrift here. As Cooke plays him, Scrooge is an irritable guy with a chronic headache, but far from the rotter that we want him to be.
Certainly Cooke does nothing to spoil the show; he merely mutes it a tad, making us focus a bit more on form than on content. And that's actually a fine way to approach director David Bell's finely wrought adaptation.
First performed at Ford's in 1987, this "Christmas Carol" has a mild, burnished, cozy feel about it: It's the domestic scenes, rather than the ghost-patrolled ones, that linger in the mind. Set designer Daniel Proett's snow-glazed windows, tastefully laden wooden tables and well-placed armchairs, even the beautifully etched gravestone that appears during Scrooge's tour with the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, speak of care and style above all.
D. Polly Kendrick's costumes are straight out of a 19th-century card collection, all bonnets and patterned vests and banana curls. Best of all are Rob Bowman's musical arrangements, artful swatches of carols weaved seamlessly into the action and employed in festive and haunting ways. Performed by small, ever-changing groups of stationary or strolling players, and accompanied by percussion and harp, they serve simultaneously as entertainment and commentary.
The 18-member cast, a number of them veterans of the Ford's production, imbues all that they do with a bracing clarity and quaintness. Standouts include Beth Clark who, as Scrooge's beleaguered housekeeper and also as Mrs. Fezziweg, comes across as a jovial Earth mother; the ebullient Frank Kopyc, whose ample girth and resonant voice serve him well in the dual role of Mr. Fezziweg and the Ghost of Christmas Present; and Bob Higgins's saintly, but not altogether spineless Bob Cratchit. As Tiny Tim, James Bradley Johns has just the right amount of urchinlike delight and compassion, and Mary Woods's Mrs. Cratchit is a nicely honed mixture of restraint and tenderness.
A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. Stage adaption and direction by David H. Bell. Musical arrangement by Rob Bowman; scenery by Daniel Proett; costumes by D. Polly Kendrick; lighting by David Kissel. With Mark Aldrich, Beth Clark, Andrew Clemence, Timmy Condon, John William Cooke, Dave Dillon, Gail Frye, Bob Higgins, James Bradley Johns, Kate Kiley, Frank Kopyc, Elizabeth Moliter, Bill O'Brien, Constance Ogden, Nick Olcott, James Ream, John Leslie Wolfe, Mary R. Woods. At Ford's Theatre through Dec. 30.