Adaptations of classics, whether Shakespeare, Ibsen or Dickens, are difficult to pull off in a meaningful way. The biggest challenge is that they sometimes try too hard to be clever. So I was thrilled to see that Clair-Frances Sullivan’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol at Midland Center for the Arts was skillfully written to allow the audience to connect to the original in a fresh and contemporary way without novelty for the sake of novelty. The primary outcome of this new adaptation is the realization that the lessons of Dickens’ story are entirely relevant in our world of always-on, always-available technology.
Director Sarah Smith did a very nice job of casting which is no easy feat for a director mounting a new adaptation. Space doesn’t allow me to go into depth with each of the 15 cast members, but there were a few that were particularly delightful. Dexter Brigham’s Marley reminded me of an old college roommate after a couple of beers---loud, stubborn, eccentric and totally lit up. Brigham’s take on the past business partner of Scrooge set the bar for the energy we would expect for the remaining ghosts.
Marley also set the stage for what would prove to be some amazingly creative and fun costuming on the part of costume designer Dana Schramm. Throughout the play the costumes were sort of Alice in Wonderland meets Whoville and were all fun and inspired. With the addition of the make-up and hair skills of designer Sarah Harrington, the imagery of the characters added a great deal to the overall show experience.
The set design by Evan Lewis and the light design by Stephen Fort were simple yet sophisticated and truly creative. However, there were some fairly sizable sight line problems when the set and lights were combined with the blocking. For example, when Scrooge is observing his younger self with Belle, he and Christmas past have a light special that puts them between the house left audience and the upstage action they are observing. This causes two problems since first, much of the audience is unable to see the action upstage and second, what we are able to see is Scrooge’s reactions. Because of their positioning, his reaction becomes a focal point and it is difficult to know what we are supposed to be observing. This issue occurs throughout the play whenever Scrooge and a ghost are positioned down center, down center-left or down center-right.
The ghosts of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol would be daunting for any actor to interpret in a contemporary manner. However, Sara Gochenour’s Christmas Past, Michelle Wallace’s Christmas Present and TJ Neuenfeldt’s Christmas Future solidly represented their roles as contemporary versions of the original. Also, watch for some very cool special effects as these characters take Scrooge on his journey. Between their inspired character depictions, and the support of set, lights and sound, the introductions of each of these ghosts were one of my favorite parts of the show.
Switching the genders of some characters seems to be a favorite of adaptations and I am often left wondering why. For example, in this adaptation Scrooge’s assistant, Cratchit, is a female role as opposed to the traditional male. However, Holly Booth’s interpretation of the role created a very strong rationale for Cratchit as mother rather than father. This would not have worked in Dickens’ time as it would not have been believable that Cratchit was a woman, but for this version of the story it was inspired and effective. The Cratchit family included Booth’s daughter Raegan Booth, as Emily, and Tessa Swier, as Trisha. Both seemed to have a lot of fun in their roles and together made a totally delightful Cratchit family.
Finally, John Tanner took on the challenging task of Scrooge and I don’t envy him that at all. It is tough to play an adapted character of such a well-known play since nearly everybody in the audience will be comparing you to every traditional version they have ever seen. Tanner’s Scrooge was both sensitive and tough. One of the highlights of the show was Tanner’s monologue at the end which was presented with depth and variety in a way that highlighted his understanding of what the playwright was after in closing.
At the same time, Tanner was stuck on one note as the frightened, mumbling recipient of the ghosts. Perhaps this was the script, especially in the first act, as it seemed Tanner didn’t have much to work with. Much of Scrooge’s dialogue was a series of stutters, partial words, and partial sentences. This would be expected at the beginning of the process, but once it is established that he is afraid, it seemed a missed opportunity for him not to have more coherent dialogue with the ghosts of Christmas Past and Present. With somebody as clearly talented as Tanner, it was a missed opportunity to connect more deeply with the early Scrooge.
Of course, no show is perfect and the other notable issue for A Christmas Carol was pacing. At times this was a very slow show. For one thing it started slowly with what felt like over exposition in the opening scenes with Fred and then the solicitors. Then the transitions between scenes slowed the pace. Although most scene changes were simply actors moving on stage, there was generally a pause as the actors moved to their positions and then a slow uptake into the next scene. It is almost like they are being overly careful that the audience is following.
Each actor represents their character in a way that will not disappoint. It was clear that this cast enjoyed working with each other and came together to create an interesting and engaging ensemble. The talent exhibited in the writing, acting and technical aspects of the show make for a truly enjoyable evening and a show you really shouldn’t miss.
A Christmas Carol runs this weekend only at Midland Center for the Arts. Ticket prices, not including processing fees, are $20 Adult / $16 Student, and can be purchased online, at the ticket office in person, or over the phone at 989-631-8250 or 800-523-7649.