In the 1970s, the American Conservatory Theater began producing a dark, brooding version of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, and it became part of Bay Area holiday tradition. But even a beloved snow globe benefits from a good shake, so in 2005, artistic director Carey Perloff and Paul Walsh unwrapped a bright new adaptation of Carol.
A dozen years later, that production has become the tradition for a new generation. Domenique Lozano has taken over directing duties from Perloff and is now marshaling an enormous cast of 51, which includes professional actors, graduate students in the theater's M.F.A. program, and young actors aged 8-19 from the company's Young Conservatory. In other words, it's an annual showcase for everything A.C.T. does on the enormous stage of the Geary Theater.
Any Carol is only as good as its Ebenezer Scrooge, and after 11 seasons of playing the part, veteran Bay Area actor James Carpenter is superb in the role (he's also alternating with Anthony Fusco at certain performances). He's mean enough in the first third of the story to convey just how coldhearted and stingy Scrooge is without terrifying the children in the audience. If we don't see Scrooge as a man encased in stone, we stand little chance of caring as that harsh exterior begins to crack and crumble through the ministrations of the Christmas Eve ghosts.
Carpenter's transformation is gradual and contains enough humor, mostly at Scrooge's expense, to keep the darkness from consuming him. The ebullience of Carpenter's Scrooge on a bright Christmas morning is enough to melt the heart of even the most cynical audience member who is convinced there's no value in revisiting the omnipresent Dickens classic yet again.
If the snowy London sets by John Arnone come across as blobby and more akin to the world of Dr. Seuss's Grinch, the gloriously ornate and colorful costumes by Beaver Bauer add more than enough visual pizzazz to the show. While the Ghost of Christmas Past (Lily Narbonne) looks like an icy princess from Frozen, Catherine Castellanos as the Ghost of Christmas Present brings warmth and festivity in velvety robes of vibrant green, red, and gold. The best costumes of all belong to Present's droll parade of holiday treats, including dancing Spanish onions, Turkish figs, and French plums (the jaunty choreography is by Val Caniparoli).
The one disappointing aspect of the two-act, two-hour production is the musical score by Karl Lundeberg. It appears to have been whittled down over the years, and what remains is bland at best, only perking up when interpolating actual carols like "Good King Wenceslas." The prerecorded music sounds flat, and not even all the adorable singing children can enliven the songs.
This Carol is much stronger as a play than as a musical, so it's fortunate there are some Bay Area greats on hand to make it sing in other ways. Sharon Lockwood shines as Mrs. Fezziwig opposite Colin Thomson as her gregarious husband, two bright figures from Scrooge's past; then she returns as Scrooge's terrified servant Mrs. Dilber, whose astonishment at Scrooge's transformation is priceless.
Ken Ruta, whose association with A.C.T.'s Carol stretches back decades, makes an imposing Ghost of Jacob Marley, a specter sent to warn Scrooge that an eternity of misery awaits if he doesn't change his misanthropic ways. With spiked hair and ghoulish makeup, Ruta teeters on the verge of terrifying but ultimately emerges as more pathetic.
Delia MacDougall and David Graham Jones are the noble Cratchits, parents to a lively brood that includes the poster boy for Christmas spirit, Tiny Tim (played with verve by fourth-grader Dylan Elizabeth Hammond). Their scenes can bend to the maudlin, but MacDougall is especially effective at exposing the toll the Cratchits' poverty and Tim's illness have taken on her.
There's a tendency to think of A Christmas Carol as holiday pabulum, but Dickens was a rabble-rouser of the highest order, and this is his juggernaut against want, ignorance, and greed. There's a spooky ghost story full of warning inside a brightly decorated Christmas package. Happily, A.C.T.'s production allows for bright and dark to coexist amid the revelry.
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