As Good As It Gets
For the past ten years the Alley Theatre produced an almost quintessential version of Dickens's A Christmas Carol. The show was full of humor, bright color, Victorian ambience and good holiday cheer. Amazingly, Stephen Rayne's new production of the classic play is every bit as captivating as the old one, yet the tone is so stunningly altered that it almost seems like an altogether different tale.
Dark and ominous, Rayne's take is deeply serious. Startling for its emotional power and its ability to capture the moral heart of Dickens's gothic story, this production beautifully renders Ebenezer Scrooge's humanitarian rebirth.
The proscenium framing the stage has been shaped into a gothic cut-stone archway with towering columns and gargoylish figures, suggesting the hard-knock life of the working class and the poor conditions of Victorian England. Rayne's opening image is gorgeous. A single spot slowly emerges on the cherubic face of a young child. He's singing an ancient carol in the sweetest, saddest, bell-like voice imaginable, sounding like some distant, sorrowful cry for help and foreshadowing the struggles of all those who occupy Dickens's dark world.
Slowly the shadows lift, revealing an entire chorus of singers as the music becomes more joyful, more Christmasy. In this way Rayne pitches the audience back and forth along Dickens's continuum of pity and dignity and the enormous capacity of the human spirit to survive.
Scrooge's sad history -- neglected childhood, a lost love and a pinched heart -- are revealed in the shadowy half-light of memory. The magnificent James Black returns as the old, stingy curmudgeon who learns how to live before it's too late.
John Tyson makes a perfect Bob Cratchit, tender and sometimes very funny. Indeed, the entire cast does a lovely job of bringing to life the world of Victorian England. And Esther Marquis's costumes, all grays and oaky browns, underscore Rayne's dark vision.
Visually beautiful, truly moving and wonderfully performed, the Alley's "new" Christmas Carol is as good as it gets.
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