“A Christmas Carol” is the perfect show to see as we come out of Covid isolation and return to the theatre. Jack Thorne’s fresh adaptation of Scrooge’s dark night of the soul where he is visited by the ghosts of his past, present and future, is a timely tale. Isn’t that what the pandemic has been for many of us —a long, dark night of the soul where we have had to re-imagine life as we know it? Even those among us not prone to self-reflection. We may not know how the pandemic ends, but we know how this story ends. We know Scrooge will come out the other end a changed man. We know there will be a happy ending. And, boy, this production is truly joyous and life affirming!
Many locals may be suspicious of any tour of “A Christmas Carol,” as A.C.T’S version has been a holiday institution in SF for decades. But such loyalists will not be disappointed. There is even a charming nod to A.C.T in the show, although I don’t want to spoil it with details.
I attended opening night with my very enthusiastic ten-year-old son. I highly recommend taking a kid. One can’t help but leave all cynicism at the door. As the audience trickled into the theatre, musicians in good Dickensian wear—top hats and all—played on stage. It felt like stumbling upon buskers in a square. Then, to our great delight, two characters started throwing clementines (tiny oranges if you didn’t know) into the crowd. We were all a part of it, cheering when another audience member caught some fruit, laughing if someone missed. This informality, this we’re-in-it-togetherness, was such a nice experience after months and months away from crowds. I am happy to report my ten-year-old caught a clementine.
The set is so striking it was like an extra character—hundreds and hundreds of lanterns hanging down from the grid, resembling a starry night sky, and piled up on either side of the stage floor. There are also four metal doorframes arranged in a square that make up Scrooge’s world—caging him in, as it were, like a prisoner. Again a feeling I could relate to after quarantines and lockdowns. The doorframes would fall back into the floor when the scenes moved beyond Scrooge’s work and home.
I have seen stingier, meaner Scrooges, but Francois Battiste’s version is no simple Bah humbug! cartoon. His Scrooge rich and complex. The depth of vulnerability he portrays when visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past, who reminds him of his abusive father, is heartbreaking. I wanted to root for Scrooge, and it made his transformation at the end all the more believable. My son kept elbowing me to say, “Make sure you tell them how good he is at conjuring up emotions. I love how intense he is!”
“And make sure you tell them about the amazing light work!” My son was adamant. How the light moved through the lanterns, as the Ghosts came and went, was breathtaking. The only technically troublesome part of the show is that in the first half, the underscore drowned out the actors’ voices quite a bit, but it seemed to be resolved after the intermission.
I had the good fortune of meeting the Tony-award-winning set designer, Rob Howell, outside the theatre after the show. I asked him exactly how many lanterns were used. Four thousand, he told me. Four thousand!
The three Ghosts are women dressed in bonnets and patchwork dresses. I thought the patchwork was an interesting choice, a nod to the fragmented nature of memory. The three fates. The Ghost of Christmas Past arrives with a small pram fit for a doll and the Ghost of Christmas Present arrives with a regular sized pram. The Ghost of Christmas Future arrives at first as several dark veiled figures (akin to Dementors from the Potterverse) through one of the doorframes, which suggests that there is not one fixed future, but many possibilities, and these many figures become one woman in a patchwork dress with a coffin on wheels. “From the cradle to the grave,” Howell explained.
Whenever I see a show, there is usually one stand-out actor that I can’t keep my eyes off of, and it’s not always a lead. But in this production, there were so many magnetic characters: Scrooge, of course, Belle, Fezziwig, Jess, and all the Ghosts.
The best part of this performance was all the merriment at the end. I’m not much of a weeper, but I have to admit I teared up. More than once. I absolutely love it when productions move beyond the stage to the aisles and balcony. I don’t want to spoil what they did beyond the stage, but it was so exciting—again making the audience feel like they are part of the narrative. Just as when Belle, Scrooge’s lost love, tells him when he returns to her a changed man that she has moved on, but he will forever be a part of her story. And in the words of the Ghost of Christmas Past, this production is now “a brick which built us.” I would go again in a heartbeat.
‘A Christmas Carol’ continues through December 26, 2021 at the Golden Gate Theatre. For for further information, click here.
A Christmas Carol, adapted by Jack Thorne, an Old Vic Production presented by Broadway SF. Director: Jamie Manton. Set and Costume Design: Robert Howell. Lighting Design: Hugh Vanstone. Composer/Orchestra/Arranger: Christopher Nightingale. Casting: Jim Carnahan, CSA, and Jason Thinger. Movement: Lizz Gee. Music Coordinator: Howard Jones. Wig, Hair and Make-Up Design: Campbell Young Associates. Production Stage Manager: Randall K. Lum. Music Director: Matt Smart. Music Supervisor: Paul Staroba. Voice and Dialect Director: Andrew Wade.
Francois Battise: Ebenezer Scrooge. Nancy Opel: Ghost of Christmas Past. Amber Iman: Ghost of Christmas Present/Mrs. Fezziwig. Ben Beckley: Father/Marley. Charlie Berghoffer IV: Tiny Tim. Sam Faustine: Ferdy/Nicholas. LeRoy S. Graham III: Fred. Monica Ho: Little Fan. Ramzi Khalaf: Bob Cratchit. Gabriel Kong: Tiny Tim. Stephanie Lambourn: Mrs. Cratchit. Ash Malloy: Belle. Kris Saint-Louis: Young Ebenezer. Annie Sherman: Jess. Wiley Naman Straseer: George. Colin Thomson: Fezziwig.
Matt Smart: Music Director/Keyboard. Eryn Allen: Associate Music Director. Lucas Chen: Cello. Yuri Kye: Violin. Stephanie Lambourn: Mandolin/Whistles. Kris Saint-Louis: Cello/Bass. Wiley Neman Strasser: Whistles/Accordion. Jonathan Szin: Clarinet/Bass Clarinet/Whistles