By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“Why do spirits walk the earth, and why do they come to me?”
For 19 years, Edmonton theatre audiences have had their own special answer, hand-delivered from the stage live and in person. It’s come to us in the Citadel’s theatrically lavish, emotionally rich production of A Christmas Carol.
At its final opening night Thursday (the Citadel has announced its replacement next season by a new Christmas Carol), the sense of wonder that’s everywhere in the production conceived by playwright Tom Wood and director Bob Baker seized the audience and brought us collectively to our feet. It’s been a great run, a civic tradition that lives up to its name — a Christmas present that, unlike a pair of socks, actually lifts your spirits. You have till Dec. 23 to catch it.
Since I first saw the show in 2000, the world, arguably, has grown less hospitable, less charitable. And the journey of a frozen soul back from exile to the hearth of human connectedness, as set forth in Dickens’ iconic 1843 tale of redemption on Christmas Eve, is more heart-filling than ever.
What gives this production its special lustre?
To backtrack, the world repertoire is crammed with stage incarnations — comedies, satires, melodramas — of Christmas Carol’s familiar seasonal story of salvaging a die-hard misanthrope. The gist of many is that Ebenezer Scrooge is an old curmudgeon in a really bad mood until, whee!, he’s in a really good mood.
I’ve sat through storybook theatre versions and/or actors divvying up the costumes they’ve just discovered in a trunk, and then doing the narrative bits chorally. Narrators in top-hats (and ersatz English accents) introducing the scenes: “I take you now to the humble home of Bob Cratchit….” Musicals with pop songs, or dance breaks, or audience participation carolling (sometimes with song sheets) to show we’re all in this together.
I remember writing after one particularly egregious example that you couldn’t help but feel a flicker of sympathy for the growly guy who eats low-cal by himself on Christmas Eve, and flatly refuses to go to his nephew’s place the next day for dinner and party games. That may well have been the same season I had one of my worst ideas ever, a “Bah! Humbug!” contest for the public. God help us, every one.
But I digress. I’ve had 19 opening nights now, to ponder this deluxe production. It’s inspiring to see the full resources of a major theatre and artists at the top of their game devote themselves to a story that, in other versions, is often reduced to a schematic seasonal entertainment. The ingenious theatricality of the production is in the unusual synchronicity of design (by Leslie Frankish, with Robert Thomson’s lighting and Michael Becker’s sound) and stagecraft.
Things aren’t just recounted; they happen onstage. Scrooge’s angry journey though the bustle of Dickensian London and his night of terrors, propelled by phantoms back and then forward in time, are set in motion by the cast themselves. They reconfigure lamp posts and staircases, in a design that opens, layer after layer, like a magic box.
The past, the present, and the future seem to cohabit one mind. In Wood’s adaptation, the word “change” permeates the air, from the obsequies of Scrooge’s partner Jacob Marley to Scrooge’s encounter with the chilling Spirit of Christmas Yet To Come and beyond, to the rebirth of a man on Christmas morning.
Since the initial run of Wood himself as Scrooge for the first 11 seasons of the production — an acidic humorist and connoisseur of human absurdity who’s rotted from within — every Scrooge has been individual and distinctive in personality and tone. Richard McMillan, James MacDonald, Glenn Nelson, John Wright, and now Julien Arnold (alternating with Nelson) have made the role their own.
Some performances (McMillan and MacDonald spring to mind) are chiselled from perma-frost. Arnold, who amazingly became Scrooge last season from being Bob Cratchit, isn’t of the icy and withdrawn school of Scrooge-ism. The performance has a kind of furious exuberance about it; there’s something energetic, actively outgoing about the “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner” in this Scrooge. And the transmutation of that forcefulness into joy on Christmas morning is something to cherish. He’s irresistible.
The cast rises to the occasion. I’m singling out Sheldon Elter as the good-hearted Bob, Beth Graham as fierce and plucky Mrs. Cratchit, Mat Busby as Scrooge’s ever-cordial ever-hopeful nephew Fred, Oscar Derkx as the younger and gradually hardening Scrooge, Patricia Darbasie as Scrooge’s charwoman Mrs. Dilber, Jeremy Baumung as the tortured ghost of Jacob Marley, Ashley Wright as the inherently celebratory Mr. Fezziwig. But the whole all-Edmonton ensemble, including Sasha Rybalko as Tiny Tim, is excellent. Under Wayne Paquette’s direction, the parallel scenes chez Cratchit and Fred, designed to reveal a similar festive spirit, inhabit the stage zestfully. The busy-ness of the stage never seems forced.
I wrote earlier this week about A Christmas Carol as a seminal event in Edmonton theatre, a labour of love where whole theatre careers have been forged (read it here). Thursday night, it was the shared experience of being in the audience, releasing something precious, a sense of wonder.
A Christmas Carol
Adapted by: Tom Wood from the Charles Dickens novella
Originally directed by: Bob Baker
Starring: Julien Arnold, Glenn Nelson, Sheldon Elter, Jeremy Baumung, Beth Graham, Julia Guy, Oscar Derkx, Patricia Darbasie, Patricia Cerra, Mat Busby
Running: through Dec. 23
Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com