I will unreservedly state that "A Christmas Carol" is one of the most significant stories ever written in English. With it Charles Dickens forged our modern Christmas mythology, carving into the calendar a season that is important both economically and spiritually; he embedded into cultural consciousness what today we take for granted as the "reason for the season" and a month brimming with unmitigated good cheer.
"A Christmas Carol" has been rehashed just about every year since its publication in 1843, never going out of print and finding its way into every possible artistic medium. On the Rep's holiday bill is "A Christmas Carol, The Musical," gleeful and colorful and an apt celebration of the season's warmth and childlike vitality.
For those of us who are no longer children but not yet raising our own, Christmas is often accompanied by a greater than usual ironic detachment, this being a time of year filled with ceaseless jingle bells and pathological consumerism. But Dickens' story, classic as it is, transcends the pagan gaudiness of present-day Christmas. The Rep's lyrical production continues the tradition, and it reminded me with song and dance that "A Christmas Carol" is really one of the few artifacts of Christmas that I can stand.
It's a full-out, stage-crowded show that breaks into song right away. From the get-go it's an enormous experience, the ensemble swirling around with unstoppable choreography, lots of children prancing around and bright Victorian costumes. You know the story: It's Christmas Eve in London for everybody except the money-loving Ebenezer Scrooge, who grudgingly gives his underpaid and overworked employee, Bob Cratchit, the next day off. At home Scrooge is visited by Marley, his dead business partner, who, wrapped in chains, tells him that he will be visited by three more ghosts throughout the night. Scrooge is told to heed their warnings or he'll regret it in the afterlife. All he can say is "bah humbug," but then the clock strikes one and Scrooge's journey begins.
The show has the right balance of both the frightening and the fanciful. Marley's lecture at the beginning is grotesque and dramatic, with lots of chains being whipped around, but it's quickly tempered by the young Scrooge rollicking at Fezziwig's party with his old flame in another colorful dance number. Unspeaking and faceless, draped in black, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come unfurls eerily out of the smoke machine, dragging the already-penitent Scrooge into a distressing, funereal future. He learns his lesson, the whole cast comes out to dance and Tiny Tim lives to ride his father's shoulder and depart the audience with his famous last line.
The scenes move very quickly, which lends to the excitement and the feeling that Scrooge is on an adventure. And of course, in a sense he is — after being paraded through time, he is stripped of his greed. In a dynamic and operatic climax, he faces the audience directly, wearing his iconic droopy nightcap, and belts it out, singing for forgiveness. This speed amps up the entertainment, no doubt, and its snappiness is very suited to any children in the audience. But it might be up to parents to remind them that Christmas is only the story's second priority. Its primary target is Victorian England's greedy 1-percenters, who dismissed debtors and street children to prisons and poorhouses — personified inside the Ghost of Christmas Present's fur-trimmed coat as "Ignorance" and "Want." Otherwise the play's jollity is for the most part untouched by Dickens' grim social message, which, as his most popular of stories reaches another year and another Christmas, becomes unknowingly indicted by our own contemporary brand of capitalistic irony.
The fact that it's a Christmas story is incidental, but let's leave the harangue to the English teachers. The Rep knows that the holiday season is fun, when we should all possessed by Tiny Tim's relentless optimism. Scrooge's transformation touches us, as it always does, without being too preachy or haunted. It's a good time, a Christmas memory worth reliving.
"A Christmas Carol, The Musical" continues through Dec. 25. All evening shows begin at 7 p.m.; matinee performances on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sundays begin at 2 p.m.
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