A Christmas Carol spreads new-fangled old-fashioned cheer
by Drew Rowsome
Photos by John Meadows
When measuring Christmas spirit, I fall somewhere on the scale near to Scrooge or the Grinch. No-one was more surprised than I, to find a tear in my eye near the conclusion of Alexander Showcase Theatre's A Christmas Carol.
By now Charles Dickens' classic has been performed, re-imagined, updated and parodied so many times that the phrase, "Three ghosts will visit you," can be used as a threat. This A Christmas Carol uses the gimmick of being the recording of a radio show, a live broadcast. Beginning with the tail end of the serial The Shadow, the cast then present A Christmas Carol relying only on the words. I'm certain I'm not the only one in attendance who had forgotten how hypnotic and enveloping the original text is. It is as comforting and enjoyable as a fireside story read by a favourite grandparent.
Of course the radio broadcast cast all have a story as well and the two plotlines weave and intersect, carefully leaving the power of Dickins in the forefront. It is a clever bit of stage business with a love story, a jealousy tale, and some deft characterization, commenting on A Christmas Carol and enhancing it.
Seth Mukamal, also seen in Alexander Showcases' The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Mambo Italiano, as Ebenezer Scrooge anchors the proceedings. He has a wonderfully expressive face that radiates whatever emotion Scrooge is feeling. He is also the only one without a side story and watching him linger on the sidelines while a younger version of himself interacts with his wife-not-to-be is heartbreaking. Perhaps he is too lovable, even when in full curmudgeon mode, to make the transformation startling but otherwise: he is Ebenezer Scrooge.
The rest of the cast takes on multiple roles and they are comedic or dramatic as needed while also gently sketching their broadcast cast characters. Nina Mason is anguished as Scrooge's lost love and also a not-so-innocent flirt. David McEachern lends his sonorous tones to the announcer with a drinking problem and the Ghost of Christmas Present. Steve Kyriacopoulos is the slightly frazzled producer - he is one of the producers of A Christmas Carol so undoubtedly has experience to draw on to create such verisimilitude - who has to step in and lend his voice. Andrea Brown (also a multi-faceted Mrs Cratchit) and Matthew Payne are the capable narrators and when their romance intertwines with a spoken duet it is spine-chillingly sweet. Deborah Mills and Michelle Berube get a lot of comic mileage out of creating sound effects, and Berube is a gem as the third wheel of the love triangle. Everyone acquits themselves well and having Tiny Tim (Michael Speciale) played as a spoiled brat goes a long way towards reducing the treacle.
And there is music. The show's sponsors have had radio ads written by Robby Burko - who also provides the jaunty and atmospheric piano accompaniment - and they are catchy, funny and performed with pitch perfect harmonies. Only once do they tread into satire - a retirement home with an ice cream bar? It is plausible but it is also impossible not to chuckle. The women sing like dreams and the interludes add energy to the proceedings. Only an extraneous musical interlude, seemingly to promote last year's radio play version of A Wonderful Life, falls flat due to the intrusion of real life - in a post-Ghomeshi world, the lyrics of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" are suddenly creepy.
While the original text of A Christmas Carol is mesmerizing it could also have used a bit of trimming - Dickens is no longer sacred and he did tend to go on and on to make a point. The ghosts tend to drone and speak slowly and with a ponderous deliberateness, perhaps to achieve clarity through the heavy reverb that gives them their spectral sonics, but the effect is deliciously spooky.
The Papermill Theatre, nestled within the woods and an art gallery, is a cozy gem, and A Christmas Carol fills it with a holiday heart that I hadn't expected to want. If your holiday Scrooginess is in need of three ghosts, or you just want a reminder of how the classics can be contemporary, this A Christmas Carol is an entertaining dose of holiday cheer.