At this holly-jolly time of year, productions of A Christmas Carol are as ubiquitous as the gaudy holiday light displays that bedeck our neighborhoods and as numerous as amateur presentations of The Nutcracker ballet. Theatre Downtown has joined the seasonal frenzy with yet another edition of the Dickens classic, proving that we locals can never get enough of watching old Ebenezer get his comeuppance for his yuletide humbuggery.
Artistic director Frank Hilgenberg and his cast of 20-odd revelers offer a competent if somewhat pedestrian staging of the play. In utilizing Christopher Rohner's traditionalist adaptation, the director has eschewed some of the updating that has crept inexorably into many modern versions of the work. There are no cutesy songs, no cinematic tricks and only a minimal number of stage effects to embellish the simple story of one man's nightmarish journey into the depths of his own tormented soul.
Therein lies the problem at the heart of Theatre Downtown's offering: Even though the earnest and straightforward production remains true to Dickens' words, the show itself rarely soars above the mundane. So, while Scrooge flies above London on his midnight journey with ghosts and spirits who can manipulate time and reality, this Christmas Carol remains stubbornly earthbound on the theater's cramped and unadorned stage. It's a play about magic, but one that never really enchants.
One reason for this malfunction is that many of the actors seem to be trying too hard. There is a lot of forced gaiety onstage and a marked tendency to "hugger-mugger" ad-libbed lines in the crowd scenes. This imparts an amateurish mien more appropriate to a junior high school stage than a professional company.
Yet, there are some delights to be enjoyed even if the sparkle is muted. Bobbie Bell reprises his role as the cantankerous Ebenezer Scrooge. At first, it seems as if he is toying with the idea of making the crotchety capitalist a comic figure, but he soon settles down into the reality of the part and by story's end, his joy at his own redemption is both touching and believable. Jim Bruner portrays Bob Cratchit's grief most tenderly, and in the Christmas Future scene where he talks about losing Tiny Tim, one can feel his profound loss.
History suggests that Dickens himself tossed off A Christmas Carol in order to make a bit of quick cash. And it's almost as if this Theatre Downtown execution was cobbled together in like fashion more as a commercial enterprise than an artistic one. It's sad, but it probably represents the modern Christmas spirit in a more honest albeit totally unintended way.
I hate to be a Scrooge about it, but maybe we should declare a moratorium on A Christmas Carol for at least a few seasons. It might put a dent in holiday sales, but it would be a welcome relief to theatergoers. For, if truth be told, the old chestnut is beginning to look suspiciously like a holiday fruitcake: heavy, indigestible and burdened with too much artificial sweetness.