It’s December and while Broadway is shut down, as are most regional and community theaters, there is no shortage of A Christmas Carol productions available—mostly online and a few in person. But it is safe to say that none are as anticipated as the one starring Jefferson Mays, the Tony Award-winning star of Oslo, A Gentleman’s Guide to Murder and I Am My Own Wife.
Adapted from the Charles Dickens novel by Mays, Susan Lyons and Michael Arden, and directed by Mr. Arden (Once On This Island), this Carol faithfully tells the tale of the miser Ebenezer Scrooge and his Christmas Eve encounter with the ghost of his old business partner, Jacob Marley, and three spirits (Christmases Past, Present and Future) who have come to help him see the darkness of the life he is leading. The show has been designed specifically for streaming and features some interesting camera work and visual effects that make it a curious blend of theatre and film.
But even without help from projections or other effects, this production would be a standout due to the talents of Mr. Mays, an astonishingly artful chameleon who is able to bring the dozens of characters in this story to life in what can only be described as an epic tour de force performance. Even more so than the Jack Thorne adaptation which played on Broadway last year (and will be streaming live from the Old Vic from December 12-24), Mr. Arden’s production truly celebrates both the words and the spirit of Dickens. Mr. Mays, lead (and only) actor, is also our narrator. He embodies all the characters adroitly while at the same time knowing exactly when to step back and serve as a storyteller, relishing and deliciously vocalizing the humor and humanity of the prose.
In one particular scene set during Scrooge’s visit to Christmas Past, Mr. Mays’ athleticism and transformation skills are on delightful display. First, he rapidly introduces us to a number of lively guests as they enter a party. We watch in wonderment at how a small change in gesture or voice serve to paint a vivid portrait of each–so much so that the viewer will swear there are multiple actors playing them all. A few moments later, Mays pantomimes an entire dance, complete with high kicks, before effortlessly continuing with the scene. Earlier in the show, we witness the visitation between Scrooge and Jacob Marley—an awe-inspiring marvel of exceptional acting and outstanding stagecraft, aided by the moody lighting design by Ben Stanton and terrific sound design by Joshua D. Reid.
Mr. Arden’s direction is elegant and seamless–the pacing is quick and keeps the story moving. Scenic designer Dane Laffrey’s physical production, a combination of traditional scenery, turntables, and projection panels, is beautiful and the producers have clearly not spared any expense there. There are moments that are simply breathtaking, such as a gorgeous starlit sky or snow falling in a window, that remind you how magical theater can be.
At the same time, the fact that the camera can direct your eye to specific places on stage or a close up of Mr. Mays’ expressive face is something that is afforded to us only because we are watching a filmed production. The age of COVID has few positives for anyone who loves the arts, but the evolution of filmed theater is something to be grateful for—and this A Christmas Carol is among the best of them.