Review of Hartford Stage’s annual “A Christmas Carol”

How do you reimagine a story so beloved and so popular that it seems to defy the progression of time? Charles Dickens’ novella “A Christmas Carol” has never fallen from popularity—not even once—since its publication in 1843. It is perhaps appropriate that a story about travelling through time and memory seems to have conquered time quite well itself. Each of us knows something of the classic story: Ebenezer Scrooge is a miser who spends his days holed up in his offices, cashing in on the debts of the struggling Londoners who need his help. To Scrooge, that which is not practical or lucrative does not even deserve to be recognized. Christmas, of course, is at the bottom of his list of useful things. But through the intervention of certain spirits, Scrooge’s bitter heart is recovered, and he redeems himself just in time for the Christmas holiday.
Hartford Stage has been putting on a production of “A Christmas Carol” for 18 years. Their production, directed by Maxwell Williams, is popular and seems to have become a tradition for many families who attend annually. Their “Carol” is huge, both physically and theatrically. The budget that must have been allotted for this year’s performance can only have been sky-high. The play features numerous wire-flight sequences, decadent special effects, and a cast of about 30 actors.
However, there are drawbacks to such extravagance. While I, myself, can be a stickler for source material and sticking to it, I am not opposed to departures if they help the overall intention of the play. But how far is too far? In this hazy area, I can only say this: Hartford Stage’s
“Christmas Carol” suffers from bloat. It serves up additional characters where frankly none are needed, and injects the spellbinding and exquisite prose of one of Dickens’s masterpieces with dripping slapstick and a strange brand of comedy that is instantly rejected by the greater story. Even the preface of the book emphasizes the simplicity and sincerity needed to successfully provide the story. Dickens begins memorably: “I have endeavored in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humor with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it. Their faithful Friend and Servant, C. D. December, 1843.”
I feel I am at risk of sounding miserly myself by these criticisms of what is a joyful and visually amazing piece of theater. But understand me—“A Christmas Carol” is a highly textured piece of writing with an inherent darkness to it. It is too often turned into a smiling and overwrought reimagining. What should always be present is the seething backdrop of London grime, child labor, and human misery that characterized both the time and the book. This darkness—the slight tinge of despair that makes the original so impressive—is removed from the play but not rebalanced or replaced properly.
The writers of this version seem to have looked long and hard at the book, searching for structural opportunities to rework for a modern audience. “Wouldn’t it be cute if…?” they must have asked; thus, this is the end result. But it shouldn’t be cute. It should be elegant, pointed, and subtle.
Aside from my fundamental dispute with the handling of the play, I must say that I enjoyed much of what I saw. The actors seem to have been well prepped on how best to ham up their often somber characters for entertainment value, and their performances, while blunt, keep us interested and are good for a laugh every once in a while. Bill Raymond’s S3crooge is a good example. He seems to enjoy taking his character high up into new frontiers of camp, which is a bit exhausting at times, though his performance was certainly among the best.
Cinephiles might be interested to note that some of the references and lines from throughout the play were not taken from the book, but actually from the 1951 film starring Alastair Sim as Scrooge (my personal favorite version). Yet, the real draw of Hartford Stage’s “Christmas Carol” comes not from a place of artistry but from the world of spectacle. Spectacle sells, of course. And why shouldn’t it? If you choose to, you will go to Hartford Stage, see the play, and be entertained. Enter a world of hovering skull-faced ghosts, blubbering comedy acts and a dismissal of nearly every form of restraint. But you must remember that this is not the same experience—not nearly as satisfying or profound—as reading even just those first words: “Marley was dead: to begin with.” There, not for the first time I’m afraid, Mr. Dickens remains in a league all his own.
“A Christmas Carol” plays at Hartford Stage until Dec. 27.

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