I've seen at least one version of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol for every December I've been reviewing theater (which adds up to a lot of Decembers, and doesn't include annual visits to the Wanamaker's/Macy's Christmas Village). McCarter Theatre's new adaptation by David Thompson probably rests at the top of that heap, a big-budget, talent-packed, and adorable-child-filled sugarplum of a production.
Of course, every production of A Christmas Carol is still just that: sooty-faced Victorian urchins; the three ghosts; Ebenezer Scrooge and his humbuggery; Tiny Tim's blessing us, every one. But there are always new generations of children ready to be terrified into a life of charitable Christian giving, and for them, McCarter's is likely to make the lifelong impression against which all other Scrooges will be measured.
It certainly helps that this Scrooge is Greg Wood, a ringer in every role he's played during his long Philadelphia career, though this is somehow his first time appearing on McCarter's stage. Wood makes for a spryer Scrooge than the usual elderly, sunken-chested specimen, and he's the anchor here, working hard to bridge the gaps between the cast's professional actors and community members and keep the story's pulse beating at a quickened pace.
There's a lot to wrangle with this production. It has a cast of 25, special effects (for example, Frank X as a flying ghost of Old Marley), interludes with period Christmas carols, and Daniel Ostling's constantly changing set — one minute it's a huge, whirling staircase; the next, it's Scrooge's carved-wood and embroidered drapery-filled bedroom walls sliding open to reveal the wintry wonderland of Christmas past. Linda Cho's gorgeous costumes add mightily to the eye candy. There's heavy tapestry fabric on overcoats and a Ghost of Christmas Present (Mimi Francis) who, in a bright-green embroidery-and-lace layered gown, looks like a walking Christmas tree. And the Ghost of Christmas Past is an impressive little actress named Ivy Cordle, all in white and glowing with Christmas lights like a tree-topping angel. Here's a YouTube video of Ivy:
Director Adam Immerwahr, artistic director of Washington's Theater J, a Jewish-theater powerhouse, seems an odd choice to me, but perhaps his input is also what makes this production feel a little irreverent, like everyone's having just a bit more fun than they should, considering the seriousness of the lesson at hand. That sensibility is an improvement on the usual Dickensian doom and gloom; it recalls another slightly later London resident's declaration that, "A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down." It sure worked on me.
A Christmas Carol. Through Dec. 31 at McCarter Theatre, 91 University Place, Princeton. Tickets: $25-$103. Information: www.mccarter.org