A shared responsibility for human happiness: A Christmas Carol is back at the Citadel, live. A review.

Ted Dykstra as Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge, A Christmas Carol, Citadel Theatre 2021. Photo by Nanc Price.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Snow’s a given. Sunset before happy hour, also a given. But in Edmonton it’s never really “beginning to look a lot like Christmas” till A Christmas Carol opens at the Citadel. That’s just the way it is here.

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“The the hap-happiest season of all,” as another hit from the Christmas songbook has it, can begin. David van Belle’s clever 20th century adaptation of the evergreen Dickens ghost story, which premiered in 2019 (after 19 seasons of Tom Woods’ hit Victorian era version), is back onstage. Live and in-person. And, times being what they are, when we can’t ever take human connectedness for granted, seeing Daryl Cloran’s big, handsome, music-filled production live as it populates the stage with 25 actors and a band, feels like a special occasion — and a sign. (The 2020 film version is available this year, too).

In van Belle’s version, Ebenezer Scrooge tells us that “Christmas is an excuse to be weak.” When it comes to making large-scale theatre in 2021, he couldn’t be more wrong. The Citadel’s A Christmas Carol takes ingenuity, commitment, and a $1 million budget.

If you saw the 2019 production of A Christmas Carol, or caught the Citadel’s 90-minute film adaptation, created last year in the COVID-ian maelstrom to maintain the theatre’s two-decade holiday tradition, you already know that van Belle re-locates the story in time and space — and hence in sight and sound. The last-minute ghostly intervention that thaws the frozen heart of Ebenezer Scrooge and saves him from solitary damnation happens a century later, and across the pond from the original.

It’s Christmas Eve, 1949. And Mr. Scrooge (the excellent Ted Dykstra returning to the role) is the ruthless, perpetually exasperated boss of Marley’s department store. He worships at the shrine of the bottom line and talks the talk of profit margins. And although Christmas retail is good for both (especially if you front-rack the colour red, he says), the season seems to bring out the worst in him with its spirit of bonhomie.

“Wrap it up!” he snaps at the in-store Santa, who’s gone 20 minutes over his time. To passing choristers, it’s “knock it off! Scram!” To everyone else — including the terrifying chain-dragging ghost of his late partner Jacob Marley (Julien Arnold), businessmen raising money for the Christmas Fund, his ever-exuberant nephew Fred (Oscar Derkx), the mysteriously lovely Ghost of Christmas Past (Lilla Solymos) — it’s “waddya want?” And it’s delivered like a slap to the head.

Seeing the show again, I was re-struck by the unerring way Dykstra lands the idiom and cadence of van Belle’s witty, sharp-eared re-fashioning of Dickens’s language for another century (and continent). “Miserable woman,” he mutters at his housekeeper Mrs. Dilber (Ruth Alexander), fleeing the room. “She’s got the place lit up like the Moulin Rouge.”

“I chose to warn you,” says Marley, rattling his chains alarmingly as he warns of impending salutary house calls from three spirits. “Message received,” declares Scrooge, hoping to avert the visitations. “I’d rather not….”   

Dykstra’s Scrooge, who stomps through the store as if it might slide away from him, is a man of wit turned rancid. His ironies are withering, his comebacks acid. “Welfare!?” he briskly tells the Ghost of Christmas Past, who’s brought up the subject in its largest sense. “Not a fan.”

Braydon Dowler-Coltman returns to the role of the younger Scrooge, impeccably charting an incremental hardening of the soul. This year Daniela Fernandez is Belle, his first and only love, playful at first, and increasingly neglected by her money-obsessed fiancé. Her exit line as she gives back the ring? “Be who you want to be.”

The Cratchits, Patricia Zentilli centre, in A Christmas Carol, Citadel Theatre 2021. Photo by Nanc Price.

And new, too, is Patricia Zentilli, in a lovely performance as Mrs. Cratchit, widowed by the war and harried by circumstance. She’s trying to be positive, hold down a job under an impossible boss, and keep a big family going on a shoestring — with a chronically ill youngest kid and no health care. It’s not the 1840s prospect of death by starvation perhaps. But it’s the meagre hard-scrabble single-parent life of the post-war working poor. Zentilli’s is a performance that expertly incorporates music — the wistful and nostalgic Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas — in a musing, organic way. It redeems a role that never quite seemed believable in previous years.

Lilla Solymos in A Christmas Carol, Citadel Theatre 2021. Photo by Nanc Price.

As the Ghost of Christmas Past, Solymos, whose ethereal account of White Christmas propels Scrooge on his journey into his own past, seems to have lighted down from the spheres. And as the ‘50s performing hep-cat/ Beat poet Ghost of Christmas Present (“and Presents”), John Ullyatt is a breezy and riotous tour guide. “I don’t teach; everything in my school is show and tell,” he tells ‘Scrooge-y.’ The latter makes a feeble attempt to shut down more incriminating journeying into the “consequences” of his cruel behavior. “Is this the only way we can do this?” Well yes, actually.

John Ullyatt as the Ghost of Christmas Present, A Christmas Carol, Citadel Theatre 2021. Photo by Nanc Price.

“Music is part of the whole Christmas gig, baby,” the ghost tells Scrooge. The whole Christmas Carol gig, too: In this production it’s a 14-hit songbook of post-war hits that range from the wistful, I’ll Be Home For Christmas for one, to the giddy fave I Want A Hippopotamus For Christmas.

The production gives you another chance to appreciate Cory Sincennes’ design, in synch with Cloran’s stagecraft that sends characters whirling through window and doors, and especially the revolving door that along with the clock is a keynote of the stage. Sincennes’ lavish costumes trace Scrooge’s journey into his past through the 20th century. And Leigh Ann Vardy’s dramatically apt lighting moves the piece through time and space, and ghostly appearances, too.

Scrooge’s mantra of “consequences,” wielded as a bludgeon against others, turns the spotlight on his own sins in the course of the adaptation. It’s not a question of “doling out” charity; it’s a sense of the shared responsibility for human happiness as “fellow passengers on the journey of life,” as Fred puts it in van Belle’s adaptation.

The party scene at the Fezziwigs, with a star solo from Chariz Faulmino, which reveals the joy on which Scrooge has slammed the door, is a highlight. Ditto the party scene chez Fred, and the family dynamic chez Cratchit

If you haven’t got a family of your own, “the one you’re born with,” or the familial past is something to be overcome, you can find another. That’s the story of Ebenezer Scrooge. And, yes, the theatre family is back together to tell it to us.

REVIEW

A Christmas Carol

Theatre: Citadel Theatre

Written by: David van Belle from the Charles Dickens novella

Directed by: Daryl Cloran

Starring: Ted Dykstra, Julien Arnold, Ruth Alexander, Oscar Derkx, Braydon Dowler-Coltman, Patricia Zentilli, Lilla Solymos, John Ullyatt, Priya Narine, 25 actors in all

Running: through Dec. 23

Tickets: 7890-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com

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