By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“Light!” declares the twinkly old man at a piano on the stage of a big dark empty theatre. “Light during the longest nights.” It’s what every ghost wants, he says. And he’s got the ghost story to prove it.
It gets told — or rather revealed magically in bursts of light — in the Citadel’s 90-minute film version of David van Belle’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol that premiered onstage in 2019. And it’s a beautiful, light-filled homage to a venerable Edmonton tradition. In this town, snow schmo. It never begins to look a lot like Christmas until we unwrap the Citadel Christmas Carol. And we’ll be doing that, for the first time and of necessity, from the vantage point of our own couches.
By any reckoning 2020 has arrived at a strange dark isolating season. Cheerful musical declarations like It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year come with major qualifiers — and wistful ones like I’ll Be Home For Christmas have a kind of melancholy reductive truth to them that hits your heart. Along with Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, and its timely hope that some day soon we all will be together, they’re stellar entries in the secular post-war songbook that weaves through van Belle’s adaptations of A Christmas Carol for stage and now for screen.
They re-locate in time and space Charles Dickens’ indelible 1843 tale of a solitary frozen soul thawed into human connection on Christmas Eve, from the Victorian period in England to 1949 across the pond, and a world of desperate hustle and the ghostly cohabitation of past present, and future. No wonder the centrepiece of director Daryl Cloran’s stage production and his film is a revolving door.
A post-war North American department store, Marley’s, is where we find Mr. Scrooge (Ted Dykstra, reprising his terrific stage performance for the film) in the lucrative Yuletide retail season, stomping through the place, flinging the non-festive lingo of the bottom line at cowed employees, including his in-store Santa. Dec. 25 isn’t an employee holiday at Marley’s. The boss deliberately consigns his personnel manager, sweet Mrs. Cratchit (Alison MacDonald) who’s lost her husband Bob in the war, to a work day under the battle cry “Inventory!”
In short, humanity, which is to say “foolish people at a foolish time of year,” rubs Mr. Scrooge the wrong way. He exists in a state of perpetual exasperation; he briskly boots carollers clean out of their multi-screen Zoom Christmas chorale. His Bah Humbugs! are propelled on a stream of acid irony. The Scroogian response to Merry Christmas? “Scram!”
The 90-minute film version, which can be yours for 48 hours of family viewing with a single $40 streaming ticket, isn’t some abbreviated best-of version of last year’s two-hour stage production. It’s been thoughtfully, smartly reimagined and rewritten for film by playwright van Belle and director Cloran.
Shot in the Rice Theatre instead of the Maclab mainstage, it retains the look of the show, with Cory Sincennes’ costumes spanning the story’s present and its flashbacks to Scrooge’s blighted past. And the lighting (for the stage by Leigh Ann Vardy), is not only strikingly conceived for a ghost tale, but a palpable dramatic participant in the telling of a story that takes Scrooge on a journey into past and future, getting a salutary dose of his own mantra of “consequences.”
New for the film is the framing by a Narrator (Glen Nelson, a former Scrooge himself, smiling at the piano). It’s a device that is tricky (and often unrewarding) to pull off onstage. It works here, though occasionally the Narrator’s annotations in the course of the show seem unnecessary because the images that displace the narrative in time and locale are so vivid and well-chosen. Characters whirl through the revolving door to arrive in a scene. And the interventions of the three ghosts are, whoosh!, magical, for film in a way that’s reinvented from the theatrical magic of Cloran’s original stagecraft.
This digital version returns the cast of last year to us, led by Dykstra’s memorable Scrooge, speaking the language of another century and another continent. And although, in 90 minutes the story doesn’t linger much on Scrooge’s earlier selves, performances from Braydon Dowler-Coltman as the ever-frostier younger Scrooge and Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks as his sparky fiancée Belle are powerfully focussed. Scenes with Priya Narine as Scrooge’s sister Fanny, and Ben Stevens as his heroically cheerful nephew Fred, recipient of a lifetime of Bah Humbugs, have impact too.
And in the whirl of close-ups, angles, and long shots, you’ll get to see the look in Scrooge’s eye as, unexpectedly stricken, he has a terrible and unwelcome vision of “consequences” chez Cratchit. Or an up-close experience of the late Jacob Marley (Julien Arnold), who emerges, singed from the fiery blast of hell to warn his former business partner of impending moral doom. And the other ghosts have an eerie proximity too, starting with Lilla Solymos who brings a haunting and haunted look and sound to the Ghost of Christmas Past and White Christmas. John Ullyatt is the riotous ’50’s hep-cat Ghost of Christmas Present, and as for the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, my lips are sealed. As in the Tom Wood adaptation of A Christmas Carol that returned annually to the Citadel for 19 years, it’s a surprise with a chill.
What actually works better on film in van Belle’s adaptation of his adaptation is, I think, the music, the familiar Christmas classics of the ‘40s and ’50s. Onstage, the story sometimes lurched for the songs. The more abbreviated film narrative — after all, Scrooge’s heart-warming life-changing journey happens in the course of a single Christmas Eve — gives them more momentum, perhaps. And they just feel more organically embraced here, sometimes shortened, sometimes “performed” by the characters (Chariz Faulmino is a knock-out), sometimes hummed in snippets. Kudos to Steven Greenfield’s extra arrangements, and Mishelle Cutler’s sound design.
I can’t wait for A Christmas Carol to return live to the stage, of course, with the sense of special occasion that attends its annual reappearance. But, with a boost from sponsorships (including EPCOR’s invaluable Heart and Soul Fund), it’s a tribute to the Citadel, and the ingenuity of our theatre artists, that they translated their skills to another medium so we wouldn’t be Carol-less in a far from merry season. They’ve made beautiful work of it.
A Christmas Carol is streamed, via the Citadel website, through Dec. 31.