Review: An eager-to-please ‘Christmas Carol’ at the Ahmanson Theatre
Before I’m cast as the Scrooge of drama critics, let me start this review of “A Christmas Carol” by stressing just how much I loved the lighting.
Small lanterns hang above Rob Howell’s deconstructed set to create a heavenly canopy of illumination. The Ahmanson Theatre, where this new version of the Charles Dickens classic is playing through Jan. 1, positively glows with festive excitement.
It is indeed a pleasure to be back at the Ahmanson, which has been dark throughout the pandemic. But I found myself resisting this Old Vic production that has arrived in Los Angeles by way of Broadway, where it won five Tony Awards.
Originally conceived and directed by Matthew Warchus, this fresh take on “A Christmas Carol” has been re-tailored for its Southern California run. Thomas Caruso directs a production that stars Bradley Whitford as a milder-than-usual Ebenezer Scrooge and features the stellar Kate Burton as the Ghost of Christmas Past and vibrant Alex Newell as the Ghost of Christmas Present.
Usually when encountering “A Christmas Carol,” you don’t have to worry about sorting out the plot. But the story has been significantly adapted by Jack Thorne, who received a Tony for his script for “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” and bad marks for his book for the musical disaster “King Kong.”
Scrooge’s journey has been altered to the point that should you become momentarily distracted by, say, your shopping list, you might find yourself asking, “Wait, now who is this character again? And what is she doing in ‘A Christmas Carol’?”
One of the obstacles to paying close attention is purely technical. The amplification of the actors creates a shrieking nightmare. When certain performers speak, whether it’s an individual chorus member zealously delivering the intermittent narration or one of the principals having an emotive moment, the volume can be earsplitting.
“Why are they screaming?” I wondered repeatedly. But of course the problem wasn’t the actors. It was the engineering. How could such a fixable problem be allowed to mar an opening night as momentous as this one? Newell was so loud I kept hoping that the sound system would go on the fritz so that we could all just enjoy the thrill of such a commanding voice.
Thorne’s adaptation operates under the Wordsworthian principle that the child is father to the man. Burton’s Ghost of Christmas Past, a moral psychologist disguised as a spirit, reunites Whitford’s Scrooge with his younger self (played by Harry Thornton).
We meet an innocent lad playing with dolls at his boarding school and then see how all the goodness was crushed out of him. After a visit from his sister, Little Fan (Glory Yepassis-Zembrou), a minor character in Dickens given a larger role by Thorne, Scrooge is roughly pulled out of school by his tyrannical father (Chris Hoch).
Little Fan will eventually return to remind Scrooge that he once had a heart. But there’s other ghostly business that must be attended to first.
The Ghost of Christmas Past ushers Scrooge to his youthful apprenticeship to replay for him the way he met and inevitably lost the love of his life, Belle (Sarah Hunt), his boss’s daughter. (Making money turns out to have always been his priority, even when he was capable of romance.) Newell’s Ghost of Christmas Present, a more hectoring spirit, will take over to reveal the tragic consequence of a miserly life.
By the time Little Fan returns, Scrooge’s transformation is pretty much assured. There’s not much drama in the struggle. Whitford (looking very much like the version of Stephen Sondheim he plays in “Tick, Tick … Boom!”) is too eager to be liked by the audience to make a convincing grinch. The ogre business is as stagy as a phony mustache.
In truth, this Scrooge really doesn’t need these late-night visitations from beyond the grave to redeem him. A warm cup of cocoa with a few marshmallows might do the trick.
I had no trouble imaginatively entering Dickens’ world in 2018’s bracingly original version of “A Christmas Carol” at the Geffen Playhouse that was populated nearly single-handedly by the multitudinous acting genius of Jefferson Mays. But between the hectic nature of the staging and the nowheresville abstraction of the set, I felt completely outside the Ahmanson production.
There are, however, some lovely hand bells to go along with the enchanting lighting design of Hugh Vanstone. My ears may have been too much in a defensive crouch to fully appreciate the score by Christopher Nightingale, but the music strives to spread holiday cheer. (During the extended opening night curtain call, these bells were deployed in a tribute to Sondheim led by Whitford, who couldn’t help noting that this “may be the least Stephen Sondheim show that you have ever seen.”)
What about Bob Cratchit, you ask? He’s played by Dashiell Eaves and he’s given short shrift in Thorne’s reworking. Tiny Tim (Cade Robertson played the role at the reviewed performance), however, is an utter doll.
This production must have a fondness for endings, for several are included. The performers stomp, shout and sing through the aisles and in the balcony as the play draws to a close. There are some L.A.-specific jokes as Scrooge gathers delicacies from local sources for the Christmas banquet he’s going to lavish on the bug-eyed Cratchits.
It’s all good communal fun — and God bless every one who enjoys the show more than I did.
‘A Christmas Carol’
Where: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. (Call for exceptions.) Ends Jan. 1.
Tickets: $40-$179 (subject to change)
Contact: (213) 972-4400, CenterTheatreGroup.org
Running time: 2 hours (including one intermission)