December 13, 2019
New adaptation of ‘Christmas Carol’ radiates with heart, soul, talent
By John Busbee for The Culture Buzz
A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas is an adaptation that artfully blends the elemental framework of Dickens’ original with masterful strokes of refreshing liberties. Michael Wilson is the visionary behind this script and, by one of Iowa’s best theatre companies, is brought to vibrant life through a gifted production team and a talented cast.
Iowa Stage Theatre Company established a regional tradition several years ago, presenting this holiday classic as adapted by Larry Carpenter. The production was a lively, authentic version of Charles Dickens original, filled with a somber brooding, yet lively paced, following of the Scrooge tale. Iowa Stage, never been content to rest on its laurels (that production garnered many Cloris Award nominations and two Cloris Awards), wanted something new. Iowa Stage wanted to give its audiences more, while retaining this sense of classic tradition. An extensive search, reviewing several worthy adaptations, yielded one that rose above the others. However, the committee could not envision how this script’s needs could fit into the unique confines of Iowa Stage’s new home, the Stoner Theater. Enter Jagim, who convinced Iowa Stage that this script would work in the Stoner. He had a history with this script. He was Wilson’s original designer when it was first produced at the prestigious Alley Theatre in Houston. With the green light, Wilson’s A Christmas Carol will take its audiences on a new journey along familiar trails of the conversion of Scrooge and how that conversion impacted so many others.
Jagim’s design not only is worthy of chorus-filled praise, it should be included in a fine art exhibition for its sheer artistry. The challenging Stoner becomes a malleable clay in Jagim’s hands, delivering metamorphic scenic shifts that become character elements in the show and are sheer eye candy. The detailed etchings throughout the upstage walls, a series of subtle, evocative steel girders, multiple levels, magical entrances. This landscape becomes the catalyst for director Matt McIver’s superb cast, including a Megan Helmers-choreographed trio of diaphanous spirits texturing the preternatural scenes like spiritual fog. This Christmas Carol is a titillating sensory experience.
Richard Maynard returns as Scrooge, delivering his role with a rejuvenated, transformative drive that captivates. Marley will never be seen the same after experiencing James Serpento’s spin on Scrooge’s deceased partner as he launches Scrooge on his epiphanic journey. The cameo role of Scrooge’s housekeeper (uncredited – keen observers will recognize the performer) brings delightful comedic counterpoint to the mostly serious story – although this version is filled with laughs. John Robinson’s affable Bob Cratchit, Becky Scholtec’s Mrs. Cratchit is the spirited loving wife, the delightfully ebullient Fred thanks to Eric Frederickson and the refined, radiant Jess Wade as Mrs. Fred flow in and out of the story with gracious, effective ease. Wilson takes a brilliant new coloring of the Dickens story with his Christmas spirits as Past, Present and Future (respectively, Donna Scarfe, Shawn Wilson, and Ethan Seiser) also portray street merchants indebted to Scrooge. These scenes, beautifully enacted, add delicious enhancements to the story. Topper (John Audlehelm) and (Cynthia Madison Rose Moran) elevate the Fred party scene with natural grace. Add the rest of the Cratchit family and the Girl and the Boy, and this spare cast is filled with efficiently double- and triple-casting situations that all support a production pace and flow that is as smooth as the abundant fog effect rolling through many scenes. This richly conceived adaptation delivers some refreshing liberties with the traditional story while embracing the heart, soul and redemptive message of Dickens’ original work. Waves of new twists and turns, surprises and reflective moments, blend together into a magical two-act amazement.
Iowa Stage’s A Christmas Carol a rich serving of Christmas cheer, filled with a bounty of gifts: eye-catching lighting wizardry through special lighting and gobos sifting through stage fog; subtle, effective musical and audio underscoring; and a scenic design that provides all the intrigue and appeal of the best theatrical advent calendars imaginable. This production will be a hot topic of discussion well beyond its final curtain, giving all who experience it a lasting understanding of the true meaning of Christmas. This “new tradition” is filled with all the Dickensian touchstones we have grown to love, while culminating in a whirlwind ending with all the payoffs an audience could hope for.
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