Theatre Review: “A Christmas Carol” at the IRT

On Saturday, November 27, 2010 I drove to downtown Indianapolis to see the professional Indiana Repertory Theatre’s production of “Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol,” adapted by Tom Haas and directed by Richard J. Roberts.

It was the opening night of this annual holiday treat AND “alumni night” so every seat was filled.  The seat I was given was at the far end of the very last row of the balcony, so the actors’ faces were blurry and I could only see 2/3 of the stage.  I couldn’t see the entrances of the first two ghosts at all and the very dramatic entrance of the third ghost was barely within my line of sight.  I was glad that I had not paid for this seat or chosen this night to introduce a friend to the IRT, and I confess that I spent the first few minutes of the show muttering “Bah, humbug!” and trying to breathe through my resentment instead of paying attention to the performance art itself.

However.

Even from a bad* seat, this year’s “Carol” is enchanting.

What the Show Is About

This show, which has become a classic in and of itself, is based on Charles Dickens’ classic novel of a miserly, emotionally closed-off accountant/money lender named Ebenezer Scrooge who is visited by a series of ghosts one Christmas Eve in Victorian England.  They scare him into looking at his life – past, present, and future – and changing it for the better.

The story’s themes related to compassion and second chances are eternally appealing.

Artistic Considerations

One of the things I love most about this show is the fact that it respects, and delights in, Dickens’ original language, plot, and characters but also offers a tight, fresh experience of them.  This show could stay exactly the same (or as “the same” as any live theatre piece ever is) and I would love seeing it year after year.

However, I also love that a) each of us audience members brings something different to the show each year simply because we have lived a year longer, and b) the IRT tweaks the show a bit every year artistically, which further deepens both the staff’s and the audience’s connections to this classic piece.

This year, there are two (maybe three?) big changes on the IRT’s end.  They all work well.

One change is the new director, Richard J. Roberts.  He is the IRT’s resident dramaturg and has also directed several other shows.  The former director of many years, Priscilla Lindsay, was in the audience opening night and went up on stage at the end of the show with all of the other “Carol alums” to congratulate Richard and the cast.  I always admired Priscilla’s work, but I love that Richard has led the actors into illuminating new bits of humor in the script.

Another change is the cast.  It includes, as always, several IRT regulars, but several have taken on new roles.  Robert Neal, for example, is now a terrifying Marley’s Ghost.  

When he appeared early in the show and started admonishing Scrooge about his wrong priorities, that was the moment I sat up and told myself, “Hopie, stop sulking about your seat!  There is some excellent performance art going down there on the part of the stage you can see, and you’re missing it because you’re Scrooging!”  In other words, Marley’s Ghost snapped me awake, too.

Other examples include last year’s Bob Cratchit, Ben Tebbe, as this year’s open and joyful Young Marley, a good friend to Young Scrooge if ever there was one.  And Jerry Richardson (from 2008’s “This Wonderful Life”) as the ground-down but still kind-hearted and sprightly-cute Bob Cratchit, Scrooge’s employee. (Did I say “cute”?  He is adorable in this role.)

These are only two of many examples of just-right role shuffling.

The biggest cast change, of course, is that this year Ryan Artzberger has taken over the role of Scrooge from Charles Goad, the man who played this icon for many years before he decided to make a career change and go to culinary school to become a chef.  Chuck was in the audience opening night and went up on stage at the end of the show along with Priscilla Lindsay and several former Tiny Tims and Fans and so on, to congratulate the cast as well.  I always loved Chuck as Scrooge, so I also loved seeing him publicly put his stamp of approval or whatever on this new iteration of the show.  (And he looked so young without his white Scrooge hair!)

(By the way, this seems the right time to say that “Carol Alumni Night” or whatever they call it is a wonderful idea.  I confess that the only child actor I recognized from previous years was Frank Shelton, and I recognized him only because I had seen him in other shows in more recent years.  But it was fun to see and applaud everyone who stood up and said, “My name is ____ and I played ____ (role) in ____ (year or years.)”  One woman who had played Scrooge’s young sister, Fan, brought her preschool daughter up on stage with her!  It was fun to see so many generations of theatre artists and theatre lovers.)

Ryan Artzberger’s Scrooge is COMPLETELY different from Chuck’s, but you know what?  I love his version, too.  He shaved his head for the role but he doesn’t pretend to be ancient.  I think it is sometimes easy to think of Scrooge as some crotchety old geezer where “old” means “older than I am, so therefore I am not like him.”  It was shocking in a good way to see a young, successful-looking man whose cold, sharp, “take no prisoners” appearance and carriage could put him right at home in many modern corporations or start-ups but which hide the emptiness inside him.

Aggh!  I’m not explaining this very well, but anyway, Ryan’s portrayal of Scrooge offers new and interesting layers of interpretation.

And his gratitude when he wakes up and realizes that it’s not too late for him to make a difference with his life! It is a pure, fresh pleasure to experience this classic emotional rush along with Scrooge as Ryan portrays him.

There might be big changes in the choreography (by David Hochoy) and in the singing (musical direction by Christopher Ludwa) or I just might not have been paying enough attention to these elements last year.  At any rate, both are lovely and smooth this year in ways that seemed new to me.

The show still includes The Snow – drifts and drifts of it, with more flakes falling gently and thickly down at the appropriate moments.  The Snow is still one of the most magical theatrical effects of all time.  (Or at least of all the 3+ years that I have been writing about live theatre in the Indianapolis area.)   Nathan Garrison is the stage manager, assisted by Joel Markus.

The show still includes those charming miniature buildings pulled in on sleds, too, to evoke each setting further in our imaginations, plus surprises from the set itself.  (Scenic design by Russell Metheny.) 

It still includes the beautiful and/or amusing period costumes and hair designs by Murell Horton.

There might be subtle new elements to the sound and lighting designs.  I don’t remember the creaks and other aspects of the “soundscape” being quite so rich and scary in previous years.  My program quotes composer Andre Hopson talking about his use of pipe organ, waterphone, wind chimes, and more.  I’d like to take in this show again with an ear towards identifying all of those as they come up in the story.  The lamplight and candlelight seem fresher, too, somehow, and the slash of light across the snow when the Ghost of Christmas Future appears is as ominous as ever.  (Lighting designed by Michael Lincoln.)

One personal resonance that was new for me this year was a deeper appreciation of Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig as bosses.  When the mischievous Ghost of Christmas Past (Cora Vander Broek) flies Scrooge back to the place where he and his friend, Marley, served their apprenticeship as young men, it is the scene of the annual company party.  David Alan Anderson as the owner, Fezziwig, and Constance Macy as Mrs. Fezziwig are contagiously exuberant, completely alive.  Their warmth and kindness towards their employees – their taking time to appreciate their employees as people, not just workers – reminded me in a powerful way that I, too, can choose every day whether or not to be Scrooge or Fezziwig to the people that I supervise at my day job.

Audience and Appeal Factors

This show is scary in some ways, and not at all childish, but I would still call it family-friendly.  I would suggest it for families with elementary school-aged children and older.

It is, of course, for people who already love the Dickens’ novel.  It is also for people that have been meaning to get around to reading that classic but haven’t yet.  As I mentioned earlier, this show respects the original novel in ways that give you a yummy, authentic taste of its literary flavor.

This year’s show, even with its changes, is still satisfying for individuals or families that treasure this show as part of their personal holiday tradition. 

For people that have never seen the IRT’s “Carol,” this year’s show is a excellent (and again: enchanting!) version with which to begin. 

Box Office

“Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol,” adapted by Tom Haas and directed by Richard J. Roberts, runs through Sunday, December 26, 2010 with several performances each week.  At every performance there is some form of “More Bah! For Your Buck” – e.g. live carolers in the lobby or live reindeer or…  The full list is here on the IRT’s website.  Make a reservation online or by calling the IRT’s Ticket Office:  317-635-5252.

‘See you at the theatres…

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com and www.twitter.com/indytheatre

(All photos in this post were taken by Julie Curry.  Run your mouse over each photo to see the actors’ names.)

*I like to think of myself as a free spirited, low-maintenance kind of gal, but somewhere along the way I became a Picky Theatre Fan.  I swear I did not start out this way!  Anyway, if you, too, are picky about where you sit, and if the theatre whose shows you want to see assigns people to their seats, the best thing to do is to buy season tickets.  That way, you will always have the seat you want.  The second best thing is to commit to individual shows early.  I.e. – make reservations the minute the thought occurs to you to go see a show. (And for me this means requesting media passes early.)

But I will also tell you that the people sitting near and in front of me at the back of the IRT’s balcony seemed to be having a wonderful time, AND most of the action in this show takes place downstage, visible to all.  If the only available seat on the only night you can go is at the far end of the last row on the balcony, I would still recommend that you go.  If you know ahead of time what you’re getting into, the IRT’s balcony seats can feel deliciously adventurous.  (Don’t lean over too far!)

H.B.

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