Reviewed by Judy Richter
Sometimes you have to go at something more than once to get it right. That's what has happened with American Conservatory Theater's production of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." Its 1976 version had become a holiday favorite in the San Francisco Bay Area, but last year artistic director Carey Perloff decided it was time for a change. So she and Paul Walsh, who was then the company's dramaturg, came up with a new adaptation with all new costumes, scenery, music and choreography. It had more than its share of delights, but as I wrote at the time, "it might take awhile to replace the old one in the hearts of longtime ACT patrons."
The earlier production still holds warm memories, but the new one now seems certain to enchant both oldtimers and newcomers, thanks to some judicious changes. Beaver Bauer's costumes, ranging from Dickensian to whimsical, remain the same, as do John Arnone's fluid scenery, Nancy Schertler's mood-setting lighting, Jake Rodriguez's effective sound and Val Caniparoli's sprightly choreography. One of the big differences is that composer Karl Lundeberg has revised the score, adding a lovely hymn that gives the work a joyful musical center. In addition, Perloff and Walsh have revised and expanded some scenes "to be even truer to the source material and to really emphasize Scrooge's voyage from darkness to light, from seclusion to community," Perloff says in a press release. Despite the additions, the play seems tighter, perhaps because it flows more logically or perhaps Domenique Lozano's restaging of Perloff's original direction has quickened the pace.
Another vital key to this year's new and improved production is James Carpenter in the role of Ebenezer Scrooge, the miserly, curmudgeonly tightwad who has no sympathy for his fellow man and no use for Christmas, which he sees as "bah, humbug." Carpenter inhabits the role, carrying the audience along on his emotional transformation and conveying his array of emotions, including anger, fear, regret and finally joy. The way he joins in the festivities during the Fezziwig's party and nephew Fred's (Brennen Leath), dancing and singing along, is amusing yet touching.
Carpenter is joined by a large cast of veteran actors along with the third-year class from ACT's master of fine arts program and 16 youngsters from ACT's Young Conservatory. Both of the latter groups make vital contributions. Most major roles are filled by veteran actors like Sharon Lockwood, who returns as Mrs. Dilber, Scrooge's put-upon housekeeper, and Mrs. Fezziwig, the wife of young Ebenezer's first employer. Also returning to the cast are Jud Williford as Bob Cratchit, Scrooge's overworked, underpaid clerk; Steve Irish as jolly Mr. Fezziwig; and Steven Anthony Jones as the Ghost of Christmas Present. Last year Jones stepped into the role at the last minute to substitute for a colleague with laryngitis. Jack Willis is new to the role of the Ghost of Jacob Marley, who makes a very scary entrance. Delia MacDougall is a strong Anne Cratchit, Bob's wife.
Although Dickens' story of Scrooge has been popularized as a Christmas favorite through a variety of adaptations, including cartoons, it's really not a children's story. The themes are deeper than mere entertainment, so parents would be advised to consider their children's maturity before taking them. But for adults who cherish rewarding theater, ACT's "A Christmas Carol" is just the holiday ticket.