God Bless Us Every One!

The Toy Cannon household went a-wassailing with Portland Center Stage for the opening of “A Christmas Carol” on Friday night.

I’ve long been a defender of this holiday chestnut. I’m a sucker for the story, from the original novella to oddball stage and screen permutations. And, I'm a fan of wide-ranging intrepretations of its central character, Scrooge, from Mr. Magoo to Henry Winkler. (You may chuckle about the latter, but I remember Mr. Winkler being quite convincing in the depression-era version, “An American Christmas Carol,” that ABC aired as a holiday special in 1979).

The opening paragraph of the Dickens novella strikes me a particularly modern in its metacommentary:

Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail. Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Many theater snobs (and I can be one) scoff at “A Christmas Carol” the same way balletomanes bemoan the annual NutcrackerFest, as if using these sacred cash cows to tow the cart of commerce is a transgression against Art. Granted, production crews have cause to complain; the ideal Victoriana version demands scenery on turntables, falling snow, billowing fog, giant puppets, flying ghosts and street scenes crowded with yuletide carolers in four-part harmony. In other words, “A Christmas Carol” can be a son-of-a-bitch to pull off.

Yes, the plot is a simplistic morality tale with hoary characters and a predictable arc of redemption with which we are all familiar. But damn, it can be tearfully joyous when Scrooge gets that second chance and--SPOILER ALERT--Tiny Tim lives. In tumultuous days of foreclosures, lay-offs and bail-outs, what better time to be reminded about the values of generosity, charity and human connectedness?

Portland Center Stage’s current version, now in its second season, uses an engaging adaptation by the estimable Mead Hunter (the Doyen of Dramaturgy). Wesley Mann in the role of Scrooge hits the sweet spot of portraying the cantankerous coot with enough humanity that the audience can root for him as he is blessed with the gift of awareness by his visiting haints.

On opening night, the audience favorite seemed to be Julianna Jaffe playing the Ghost of Christmas Present. She was flown in, perched on a tinseled wreath, singing carols with gusto, good humor and a campiness that was incongruent with the staging and tone that preceded her arrival but was a good goof nonetheless.

The costumes were predictably impressive, and the complicated set unfolded and swiveled on cue, while scenic elements dropped in, popped up and flew out to move the play through the many scenes of Scrooge’s spirit-guided journey. I’m sure it was a nightmare for the technical staff, but if you’re going to do a full-blown version of “A Christmas Carol,” pull out all the stops and make the kiddies’ jaws drop. To top it all off, they threw in a little snowfall during the curtain call.

My big quibble with the PCS production on opening night was the horrible sound quality. Miking actors seems to have become standard practice for musical theater no matter the size of the house (this production has plenty of caroling to contend with). But why do adult actors in a 600-seat modern theater need to be miked when speaking? And if you’re going to mike them, please do it right. The sound balances were off, lines faded in an out of amplification as actors turned their heads or came into proximity with other microphones, and the opening tunes were marred by grating sibilance. Marley's ghost was amplified and echo-chambered to give it a spooky, ghostly quality. Nice effect initially, but I presume one reason for casting Ted Roisum in the role is his booming, resonant voice. Unfortunately, the echo effect obscured that voice and buried some of the most poetic lines in the play:
I wear the chain I forged in life. I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you? Or would you know the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself?
This is a minor quibble, but it threw me into a Scrooge-like mood that took some time to dissipate before I could fully enjoy the show. Somehow it made the production feel small despite the money invested on stage--perhaps because amplification creates distance whereas the actual human voice draws one closer.

But never mind all that, there are endorsements that matter more than this writer's opinions. Bruce Livingstone, founder and director of Playwrite Inc, brought a group of young participants from that program to see the play. At the post-show reception, he reported that one of the youngsters gave this succinct review:

"That was better than television!"

Indeed it was, though I still think the Henry Winkler version is worth renting.


Marc Acito said...

I hope you'll also come to see my play, HOLIDAZED, an updated twist on the traditional holiday show. It's playing now through 12/28 at Artists Repertory Theater.

MightyToyCannon said...

On Saturday night, I was at a Christmas party full of theater fans, and heard LOTS of positive raving about HOLIDAZED. I'm hoping to see it before it closes.

Mead said...

Crazy! Writing a new post on my own blog, I come over to Culture Shock to fetch your URL, and what do I find but that you're mentioning me over here. Is that synchronicity, telepathy, or a lost episode of Slings & Arrows?

BTW: can't disagree with your criticisms of the production, alas. There's much in it I'm proud of, but you've definitely honed in on the very things that are still bugging me. Ah, but next year....

And do see Mr. Acito's marvelous show, which is a very welcome and very refreshing approach to holiday fare such as only the Marc's sweetly twisted soul could craft.