Given the umpteen adaptations of Charles Dickens’s famous ghost story a person is visited by over a lifetime, it’s understandable to walk into the jewel-box Lyceum Theatre with your bah humbugs at the ready for The Old Vic’s transplanted production of A Christmas Carol. But skepticism at the need for yet another reminder to keep the holiday in your heart quickly abates as members of the infectiously cheerful ensemble toss cookies and clementines to the arriving audience. To be sure, it’s a small gesture but one that’s rewarded with big smiles that are soon widened during the play itself by sharply-choreographed handbell performances and actual Christmas caroling.
But a merry disposition doesn’t always guide director Matthew Warchus and playwright Jack Thorne in their collaborative, and somewhat loose, take on the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge (Campbell Scott). Yes, A Christmas Carol has always had its gloomy side, what with Scrooge’s deceased former business partner Jacob Marley (Chris Hoch) tormentedly wandering the earth for all eternity because of his corporeal misdeeds; references to Victorian London’s nightmarish workhouses; Scrooge’s spectral visits to his lonely past, lonelier present, and nonexistent future; the meek sufferings of Scrooge’s underpaid and overworked clerk Bob Cratchit (Dashiell Eaves), and, dear god, Tiny Tim (an alternating Jai Ram Srinivasan and Sebastian Ortiz). But Warchus and Thorne turn the all-too-familiar plot into more than just a nocturnal recap of a pitiless hypercapitalist’s wasted opportunities for happiness followed by a Christmas-morning redemption; now, it’s a full-blown tale of trauma, touched off by Scrooge’s adolescent relationship with his not just emotionally but also physically abusive father (the invaluable Hoch doing double duty), who, in Thorne’s retelling has a severe drinking problem, too.
As his script for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child already proved, Thorne is not afraid to expand, or challenge, an audience’s understanding of a well-known character with new details and interpretations. More importantly, he’s also pretty darn good at it, giving his psychologically grounded Scrooge dimensions, especially in regards to his avarice, that Dickens never explored. Some might consider these changes impertinent, but, for the most part, they’re compelling, thoughtfully helping to freshen up a few of the story’s staler tropes.
After Marley portentously warns Scrooge that he is on a path to sharing his same bleak fate unless he heeds the lessons of the three additional spirits who will appear to him that Christmas Eve night, what follows, at times, feels more like radical cognitive behavioral therapy than something supernatural. Essentially, Scrooge reconnects with his inner child, the one who eventually gave into the hurts and picked isolation rather than the love that was always there, too, unconditionally available from his devoted sister Little Fan (Rachel Prather), her sweet son Fred (Brandon Gill), a kindly boss, Fezziwig (Evan Harrington), and his compassionate daughter Belle (Sarah Hunt), who would have built a life with Scrooge had he not chosen fortune over family.
Belying some of Thorne’s weightier alterations and accents, Warchus has opted to present the show as story theatre, with most of the cast coming together to occasionally provide joint narration on scenic designer Rob Howell’s skeletal, cross-shaped set that, thanks to a huge assist from Simon Baker’s evocative sound design, keeps the audience’s imagination both engaged and on edge. Howell also crowds the space with overhanging lanterns that lighting designer Hugh Vanstone uses to great dramatic effect, though their combined incandescence is never allowed to beat back the melancholic shadows that so obviously suit Thorne’s moody narrative.
If anyone is hurt by the director’s charmingly minimalist approach, it’s the Ghosts of Christmas Past (Andrea Martin), Present (LaChanze), and Future (an uncredited sort-of surprise) who are a bit of an afterthought in the production. While Warchus heightens the smokey theatrics for their arrivals, everything else about them is underwhelming, which isn’t the fault of the actors. Martin, LaChanze, and the mystery performer do what they can to infuse the moralizing spirits with some personality, but they haven’t been aided by memorable costumes (also by Howell) or Thorne’s best dialogue.
The latter mostly goes to Scott whose portrayal of Scrooge winningly compares to other thespians who have assumed the role, a list that includes his dad George C. Scott, Patrick Stewart, Bill Murray, and Yosemite Sam. Unsaddled with the character’s traditional personality U-turn, Scott is allowed to keep some of Scrooge’s gruffer traits even after his soul-stirring transformation, which actually gives it much more credibility and emotional resonance. Despite his tousled gray hair, Scott is also an unusually vigorous Scrooge, making his interactions with the youthful Belle particularly touching, since he seems less removed from being the man who first fell in love with her so many years ago.
Thorne’s only major stumble is his refusal to give Tiny Tim the last line, as if he set himself that playwriting challenge and refused to break from it. What he comes up with instead is at least too clever by half. Here’s hoping that the ghosts of three theater critics visit Thorne sometime soon and convince him that there are certain endings that can’t be topped.
A Christmas Carol on Broadway (through January 5, 2020)
The Old Vic
Lyceum Theatre, 149 West 45th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6210 or visit http://www.achristmascarolbroadway.com
Running time: two hours including one intermission