Jefferson May who won the Tony Award for playing 40 characters in the solo play, I Am My Own Wife, as well as Tony nominated for his ten roles in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder, has now topped his own record with 50 characters in the visually spectacular new stage adaption of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. You may have seen it on stage before but the truly eye-popping scenic design by Dane Laffrey and the projection design by Lucy Mackinnon rivals that of the big musicals further north on Broadway.
Add in the aural effects in Joshua D. Reid’s sound design and the ghostly lighting by Ben Stanton, this production directed by the innovative Michael Arden who reconceived both Spring Awakening and Once on This Island is a wonder to behold. The text, an edited version of the Dickens original by Mays, Susan Lyons and Arden, may not offer any surprises to those that know the novel well but the many visual effects are both fresh and ingenious.
Starting with Dickens’ original opening line, Mays is both narrator and all of the many characters in Industrial Revolution London. He follows the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, the miser who not only does not believe in Christmas, he does not believe in helping his fellow man even though he is endowed with the resources to do so. He treats Bob Cratchit, his one employee in his gloomy counting house, as well as his only nephew Fred with contempt and condescension. On this particular Christmas Eve he is visited by four ghosts: his late partner Marley, and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Future and Present. Shocked by what he is made to witness, he vows to change for the better when he awakens on Christmas morning.
Visually the show pulls out all of the stops continually making stage magic. Every scene offers new scenic effects and things that appear impossible but are right there on stage before you, but disappear in a twinkling of an eye to be replaced by new wonders. Beginning with Marley’s hearse in a flashback to seven years ago, Laffrey’s designs include Scrooge’s gloomy office, Scrooge’s staircase which somehow deposits him in his even darker bedroom on the second floor, the depressing all-boys school that Scrooge attended as a youth, Fezziwig’s warehouse (Scrooge’s first real job,) a colorful Christmas panorama filled with food and presents, the poor kitchen of the Cratchit family, the lavish dining room of his nephew Fred, and a brightly lit snow-filled cemetery. Using streaming video projection, a revolving stage and seemingly magic acts, as well as fog and snow effects, the production attempts all things that are possible on a stage.
Much of the evening is aural. Joshua D. Reid’s sound effects include clanking chains, bells chiming, screams, doorbells, keys in locks, howling winds, clocks intoning, voices echoing, dance music, ponderous snoring, and laugher and merriment. You may never have been so conscious of the work of the sound designer as you will in this new Christmas Carol. Many of the stage pictures are created by Stanton’s varied lighting which finds new textures in darkness as well as light through various kinds of windows. There are scenes in darkness that are lit by candlelight. Then there are the feast scenes bathed in a golden glow and the snow scene with its bright winter light.
From the moment he appears on stage, Mays has the audience eating out of the palm of his hand. He has proved his chops previously but here he outdoes himself. He applies his resonant rich voice to Dickens’ narration but also creates the more than 50 characters each with a different voice, many in the same scenes or conversing with each other. These are people of various ages and genders as well different classes and accents. He is never less than convincing. He is aided by Danny Gardner as The Spectre but with all the special effects it is difficult to be certain which of the visions he is. In this production conceived by director Michael Arden and designer Dane Laffrey, it gives new meaning to Theater with a capital T. This is a show that will entrance those that have seen Dickens’ tale on stage before and those who haven’t.
A Christmas Carol (through January 1, 2023)
Nederlander Theatre, 208 W. 41st Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call Ticketmaster at 800-745-3000 or visit http://www.achristmascarollive.com
Running time: one hour and 35 minutes without an intermission