A Christmas Carol
by Charles Dickens
American Conservatory Theater, San Francisco
Adapted by Carey Perloff and Paul Walsh
Music by Karl Lundeberg
Choreography by Val Caniparoli
Directed by Carey Perloff
Through Dec 24
As all of London praises the joy of the holiday season, Scrooge (James Carpenter, center) embraces the Cratchit family and sings along to the festive holiday music. Photo by Kevin Berne.
Fa-la-la-la-la and a little bit of “humbug” too. ‘Tis the season and, amid the Nutcrackers and Sugar Plums pirouetting all over the place, American Conservatory Theatre trots out its annual production of “A Christmas Carol, retooled and directed by ACT artistic head, Carey Perloff. Charles Dickens’ cautionary tale of redemption, set against the background of 19th Century London, a holiday staple, is a cash cow for theater companies, just as Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” sustains ballet troupes nationwide. It’s worth going to for a grownup, just to watch the wonder on the faces of little girls in velvet party dresses and boys with slicked-down hair.
Bay area stalwart James Carpenter sets the tone right off with his entrance as the sour, scowling old miser Ebenezer Scrooge. It’s Christmas Eve and Carpenter is as grinchy as they come as he bullies his poor clerk Bob Cratchit (a pleasant enough Jud Williford); rebuffs the friendly advances of his nephew, Fred (an ever-cheerful Brennen Leath) and scares off a pair of nice guys trying to raise money for the poor. Then he makes his lonely way home and rails against his poor landlady (the always delightful Sharon Lockwood) before the real fun starts.
The old skinflint is visited by four ghosts, the first being the best of all. Jack Willis makes the shade of Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s deceased partner, a truly terrifying specter, one of the scariest spirits who ever rattled their chains. Wherever he has come from, you definitely don’t want to go there. After warning the shaken Scrooge to mend his stingy ways, Marley announces the arrival of three more spirits and sinks back beneath the bedclothes. The first of these, The Ghost of Christmas Past, takes Scrooge back to his childhood and youth when he renounced a life of happiness in order to pursue the commerce that would come to consume him. Christina Owens plays the part in a filmy dress, on a high swing, singing a song to complete the Disney-like effect. The scene probably was staged to cheer up the kids hiding under their seats after Marley’s scary visitation. After intermission, it is followed by an even-more Disneyesque presentation of singing and dancing vegetables. Cute kids make up the salad but it is totally extraneous to the plot. “What do onions and plums have to do with my reclamation?” asks Scrooge of the spirit. And well he might.
The Ghost of Christmas Present (Steven Anthony Jones) takes us to two Christmas parties. The first, at the home of nephew Fred, is characterized by good cheer and a spirit of forgiveness for the unfriendliness of mean old Uncle Ebenezer. The second, around the table of Cratchit, the clerk, is long on love if short on sustenance. It is sparked by Delia MacDougall as the spirited Mrs. C. and adorable Amara Radetsky as Tiny Tim, the lame but game youngest son. It also boasts a lovely song, “Christmas is Here” (music by Karl Lundeberg).
There is no cast credit for the Ghost of Christmas Future, brilliantly done with filmy veils that seem to fill the stage. This is another scene that may be frightening for small children, as Scrooge witnesses his own death and funeral, unloved, unmourned and unredeemed. It doesn’t just scare kids. It terrifies Scrooge, who does an abrupt about-face, morphing into an almost-farcical figure of good will and cheer. Carpenter, who has done a splendid job up until now, turns clownish as he capers about, giving money away right and left. The finale just comes up too fast, punctuated by the arrival of the silliest turkey you ever saw and a reappearance of those dancing vegetables. But the kids loved it and, in a scant hour and a half, how much character development can you get?
This is an enormous production, with several dozen cast members, sumptuous period costumes (by Beaver Bower) and a spooky set by John Arnone that gives us a shadowy – again cartoonish – backdrop of London against which the scenes are played out. Only a Scrooge would dare criticize such a venture. And to him, or her, we must say “Bah, humbug!”