The set-up: Like a redemptive Scrooge at the finale of Dickens' immortal "little ghost story," this reviewer is dancing a jig and giggling like a schoolboy, lighter than a feather, after seeing Classical Theatre's superlative rendition of A Christmas Carol. This production, minimal in size though expansive in imagination, is perhaps the most Dickensian of all theatrical treatments to be seen in Houston this season, if not any season. The book's rich language, thicker than goose gravy and as visually atmospheric as sooty London fog, swirls through the faithful adaptation by Classical's artistic director John Johnston and Matthew Keenan, with firm assistance and visual flair from director Philip Hays. The book comes alive on stage in marvelous new ways.
The execution: Six actors play all the characters, as a Narrator (a splendid Thomas Pryor, who doubles as Bob Cratchit) nimbly leads us through Dickens' amazing descriptions and expositions. It's a felicitous choice, this use of storybook teller, like Dickens himself who made quite an impression - and bags of money - reading his own work in whirlwind traveling tours around England and America. Pryor's Narrator, explaining, harping, ironic, now sympathetic, grounds the tale, giving full force to Dickens' beautifully realized story. Just hearing Dickens' verbal cornucopia, his elongated yet telling way with a sentence, is its own Christmas feast. Pryor and Company capture the very essence of mystery, compassion, overwhelming poverty, comedy, and salvation that is so critical for the story's evergreen success.
But Carol has no power without a Scrooge who's a "squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner." Thankfully, Classical's trimmed-down production stars Alley Theatre veteran James Belcher, who's even better in this intimate staging than he's been in the Alley's sumptuous production now relocated to the University of Houston while the theater undergoes its downtown renovation. Belcher's Scrooge is one for the ages. We're a lot closer at Chelsea Market and that helps.
His mean old miser, stooped and pinched, is nobody's fool. He's been around the counting house too many times, and isn't one to be so easily convinced that old Marley (Chip Simmons in haunting mode), encased in the oppressive chains he forged in life, isn't a piece of undigested beef. "There's more of gravy than the grave about you," Scrooge snorts in indignation and incredulity. Marley's ghastly wails dampen Scrooge's grasp of reality, and, wrapped in his red bedsheet for security, he - and us - are off on this most wondrous, eerie adventure.
What I like in this production are the clever little touches that reveal so much. The strangeness matches Dickens. Marley's visage appears when Scrooge comes home as a faceless head punching through the door, a nightmare look if ever there was one. Candlelight is made the best of by lighting designer Dustin Tannahill. It's dark and spooky in this Victorian London, with shades morphing out of the foggy bleakness, and faces lit from underneath. Mannequins are used impressively to augment the cast. They can be dancers at Fezziwig's party, twirled and pushed about in sprightly choreography; festooned in green swags as ornamental representations of Scrooge's room transfigured by the Ghost of Christmas Presence; denizens of London scurrying home to their family celebrations after dark; or, most emotionally, portraying sickly Tiny Tim. Dickens' emotional wallop seems even greater when we transfer our empathy without a kid actor blocking our way. It works in a strange but utterly compelling manner.
Jon Havey's sound design is a low electronic hum that bespeaks timeless spookiness. Ryan McGettigan's lithographic background scene design is an ink-blotched manuscript overlaid on London, with minimal set pieces like the iconic window out of which Scrooge flies with the ghosts and, later, flings open when redemption beckons. Macy Lyne's costumes have just enough Victorian detail to set the period without being fussy. Classical's production is at one with Dickens, respectful, observant, and utterly right. Brittney Bush (Christmas Present, et al.); Greg Cote ( Scrooge's nephew Fred, Christmas Past, et al.); Lisa Villegas (Belle, Mrs. Cratchit, et al.) round out the merry cast. The verdict: Dickens' A Christmas Carol needs no push from me as required viewing during the season. His timeless tale, as detailed and pertinent as any work by Shakespeare, will always be worth retelling, as relevant as ever. Imaginative and soulful, Classical Theatre's production, I predict for smaller theater companies, will stand the test of time, too.
Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol continues through December 23 at Chelsea Market, 4617 Montrose Boulevard. Purchase tickets online at classicaltheatre.org or 713-963-9665. $10-$25.
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