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Promises & threats: Christmas Carols for the Scroogiest of Scrooges

Are you ready? A trio of productions each brings its own take (and a little music) to the classic Dickens holiday tale.

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As if to underline its own point, the phrase gets repeated: “Get in the spirit/’cause you’re gonna hear it/again!” Sometimes there is a very fine line between a promise and a threat.

That lyric shows up in A Christmas Carol, the Musical, an adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic, this one by the Broadway big guns Alan Menken, Lynn Ahrens and Mike Ockrent.

Robert Head, Victoria Spelman, Valentina Silva, and William Shindler in “A Christmas Carol, the Musical” at Broadway Rose Theatre Company. Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer.

Of course, there are more stage adaptations of A Christmas Carol than there are lights on the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree or stars in a winter night sky. According to a 2019 article from American Theatre magazine, the “first authorized theatrical version hit the London stage in 1844, just months after the novella was published, and that February, London had eight rival versions playing. Dickens himself did more than 100 live readings, many during his 1867-68 tour of America. And it has also been adapted endlessly in every medium, from a silent film version in 1901 to a Marcel Marceau mime in 1973. In the U.S., like the holiday it’s named for, A Christmas Carol has become a big, even crucial seasonal theatre business.”

So, yes, unless you are a very well-practiced hermit, you are going to hear it again – the name “Scrooge” invoked like an archetype, the clinking chains of Jacob Marley’s ghost, the earnest concluding cheer of “God bless us, everyone!” Every December, at least a few versions of the tale get played out on local stages.

For years I’ve practiced self-isolation from this tradition as much as a theater critic can get away with. But in these post-pandemic days – late-pandemic days? Mid-pandemic? (sigh) who knows? – I suppose we all have to pitch in. So this year I set myself a holiday ordeal: seeing three adaptations of A Christmas Carol on successive evenings.

Three nights of yuletide entertainment. So much promise. So much threat.

***

THE GREATEST THREAT, to my way of thinking, is the danger of sentimentality overload. And at Portland Playhouse on a recent Friday, that threat came with a cheerful Christian visage. Even before slipping into villainous character as Ebenezer Scrooge and getting the story underway, there was Cycerli Ash onstage singing “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” which soon became a gospel-flavored sing-along, soon followed by a reverent “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” 

“Why am I doing this to myself?’, murmured the runaway Catholic inside me. But despite shared interests in redemption and charity, Dickens’ text isn’t much stamped with overt references to faith. My guess is that for director Brian Weaver, the Christian songs serve as Victorian color, contemporary community outreach, and/or ready-made moments of emotional resonance.

When it first was produced a decade or so ago, the Playhouse A Christmas Carol seemed a surprising turn toward the conventional for the company, but it grabbed a hold of its spot on the season schedule and has shown no sign of letting go. For a text, it uses an adaptation by Rick Lombardo that is solid and straightforward and allows Weaver and company to gussy it up with a variety of tones in design and performance. Its earliest iterations, directed by Cristi Miles, earned such praise for what was described as fealty to Dickensian verities that, finally seeing the show myself, I was surprised by its almost freewheeling panache. The mixed-race cast – featuring a pregnant Black woman as Ebenezer, no less – helps shake any antiquarian dust off the proceedings. The frightful moments are played with good intensity; most notably Nikki Weaver’s turn as Marley’s ghost, fairly seething with self-recrimination. Conversely, the depiction of fellowship and good cheer among the folks not named Scrooge, especially amid the abundant singing and dancing, is palpable enough to be catching. Hadley Yoder’s wonderful costume designs look appropriately sumptuous or threadbare without ever looking, well, costume-y. Most affecting is the sense of relief and conviction that Ash gives to Scrooge’s late transformation, like someone who’s found an unimagined freedom and is determined not to return to a psychological bondage.

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Black woman sits at a desk while a figure approaches from the shadows behind her
Cycerly Ash as Ebenezer Scrooge, and Tyler Andrew Jones in “A Christmas Carol” at Portland Playhouse. Photo by Shawnte Sims.

Those who are in the spirit and ready to hear it likely will be swept up happily in all this. To the recalcitrant, though, things can seem out of balance. Scrooge, to my reading, is a bitter curmudgeon, sure, but he’s foremost a business-minded miser. Why, then, does Ash’s Scrooge start out not in an implacable yet sober prejudice against what he sees as foolishness and folderol, but in a nearly frothing rage? (It’s easy to view Scrooge as a nasty villain whose come-uppance we await, but Dickens’ moral demands that he be someone whose faults we can see in ourselves and whose reform we see as our example.) Why do the do-gooders who come to ask Scrooge to donate to their charity prance and titter through the scene like the Goofy Gophers from Looney Tunes, undermining the sense of worthy cause? In a setting both theatrical and fantastical, nothing can really be anachronistic; but let’s just say that breakdancing butting up against Xtian hymns simply isn’t to my tastes, and that having some black actors speak in English accents while others sound Jamaican made me wonder whether that suggested carelessness or a really interesting alternate history of migration within the British Empire.

Black man in a long dressing grown leads a woman in a blue gown through a floor of dancers
Cycerly Ash (center) and Lulu Kashiwabara surrounded by members of the cast in “A Christmas Carol” at Portland Playhouse. Photo by Shawnte Sims.

In a way, the most interesting fillip to this version was a bit of audience participation that cast member La’Tevin Alexander (who makes a fine Bob Cratchit) advises in a curtain speech: Every time one of the characters says the word “business,” the audience is to hiss a sibilant “biznissss!”  in response. It’s a fun way of underlining the “money isn’t everything” ethos of the story. There isn’t a lot else here to bolster that thematic tilt, but it did get me thinking that I’d love to see a more avowedly anti-capitalist adaptation: A Brecht-mas Carol, anyone?

***

THAT AFOREMENTIONED A Christmas Carol, the Musical, on the boards at Broadway Rose in Tigard, emphasizes the communitarian ideals in Dickens. When anyone makes an appeal to his conscience, Scrooge’s response is “It has nothing to do with me!” – and the goal of the ghostly visitations is to show him that this cannot be so, crucially by reminding him of his own long-suppressed yearning for home and hearth with a long-lost fiance. 

This bent helps explain Scrooge’s bitterness and makes him more relatable overall. Once the Ghost of Christmas Past (Victoria Spelman, resplendent in a dress with angular tiers resembling a pagoda) reminds him of his own buried heart, Paul Cosca’s Scrooge shows an uncommon eagerness for instruction through his supernatural trials. His new leaf upon awakening feels more organic this way, but such an early breakthrough of remorse makes the dramatic tension feel a little slack.

Which got me to thinking about the means by which the transformation comes about. Fear, guilt, shame, moral suasion – all of these are used to crack the old miser’s shell. Do (or could) the three spirits represent forms of rhetoric?  

A woman in a fanciful dress leads a bearded man dressed in a robe
Victoria Spelman and Paul Cosca in “A Christmas Carol, the Musical” at Broadway Rose Theatre Company. Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer.

Hard upon those musings came others: How believable is such an instantaneous and wholesale change as Scrooge undergoes, anyway? A night’s fright is enough to reform all his decades-long habits of thought and feeling? And all the folk around him – after briefly thinking he’s had a few nips more than normal – forgive all past insults and embrace him at face value?

How about, instead of another adaptation, a sequel: Return to the Valley of Ebenezer Scrooge, in which the old man faces a long penitence, struggling to stay on his best behavior and earn acceptance from hurt and wary townsfolk? 

In terms of relating to a character, I kinda get where the grumpy, unreformed Scrooge is coming from. Except that where his thing is lucre, mine is language.

To wit: What’s the deal with “Bah, humbug!”?

The phrase is taken as a motto of sorts for Scrooge (I find it twice in Dickens’ original – plus one solo “humbug” and one abortive utterance of just the first syllable as his crotchety will wanes), and by now gets used as a blanket rejection of sweetness and sentiment in any holiday context. But words – er, most of them, anyway – have meanings. And while “bah!” is a general-purpose negative interjection, “humbug” is something else in particular. 

From left: Victoria Spelman, Paul Cosca, William Shindler, and Valentina Silva, in “A Christmas Carol, the Musical” at Broadway Rose Theatre Company. Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer.

“Humbug if we don’t do well today!” the young Scrooge and his business partner Marley say to each other at one point in A Christmas Carol, the Musical. So, are Scrooge and Marley saying that if they don’t do well it must be because they’ve been deceived? Or that they themselves must be frauds? Or maybe it means the writers were anxious to get to the bar that day.

***

AND THERE IT IS AGAIN, in A Carol for Christmas, a new musical from Stumptown Stages

“We have no quarrel with you. We would be happy to have you in our home,” Scrooge’s nephew says to him. His reply: “Humbug!”

Is he saying his nephew is being insincere, or that the invitation is some sort of a con? One could argue that Scrooge would see an evening’s fellowship over the dinner table as a deception of sorts, a distraction from profitable industry – in which case the wording fits. But it feels here like wedging the catchphrase in wherever they could.

But enough news from the Picayune Times. (Not to be confused, of course, with the Times-Picayune, that fine New Orleanian paper.) When it comes to relating, the setting might be as powerful as the character, and so A Carol for Christmas moves the action closer to home by swapping industrializing Victorian London for the Depression-era American Midwest. Here, Mr. Scrooge is a store owner who charges folks for empty cigar boxes and takes offense at kids who expect free candy for the holiday. Janet Mouser’s book and lyrics flesh out Bob Cratchit, Scrooge’s perpetually cowed employee, by making him a volunteer director of the local church choir, rehearsing a holiday show, complete with lyrics and dialogue that reference the ways folks are cheerfully adapting to scarcity. Running the rehearsal, though, makes Bob late for work. No guesses as to who gets upset by that.

From left: Madeline Pape, Liam Beveridge, Anna Galavis, Cameron Jordan, and Kathryn Kibota in “A Carol for Christmas” at Stumptown Stages. Photo by Paul Fardig,

In terms of backstory, Mouser puts the emphasis on Scrooge losing his mother early and being packed away by his father to lonely boarding school – December 23 is his birthday and the date of his mother’s death, making his very presence a too-painful reminder to dad. This approach is an improvement on the Ockrent/Ahrens book. Having the ghosts get Scrooge back in touch with who he was before his fiance leaves him doesn’t quite work; his grim fixation on work and money is why he loses her, not just a result of the loss. The problem must have an earlier root to dig up.

And besides, the boyhood memory scene also seems to inspire composer James Campodonico to his most lovely melody here, for a song called “Days Gone By.” The lost-love plot gets another fine tune, “Magic of Christmas,” sung first by that former fiance (Kathryn Kibota) and her husband (Mathias Westmond), then in a touching reprise by Scrooge (Bruce Blanchard).

Blanchard, whose résumé boasts Broadway and Off-Broadway credits, uses his big, burnished voice most fully in “Scrooge’s Song,” the character’s grand awakening. Indeed, those two tunes were enough to redeem a largely indifferent performance in which he sounded hesitant about his lines and sometimes just sputtered out random sounds (it’s worth noting that I caught the show on a Sunday, the second performance of the day – anyone could be tired in such circumstances).

A figure approaches a man dressed in a robe
Mathias Westmond and Bruce Blanchard in “A Carol for Christmas” at Stumptown Stages. Photo by Paul Fardig.

And this Scrooge surely puts some energy into his redemption, a veritable explosion of generosity. He gives some piece work to a vagrant he’s previously insulted, then tops it by giving the man his truck. He doesn’t just give Cratchit a raise, he makes him a junior partner in the business. Profit-sharing bless us, everyone!

By the end of the weekend, I wasn’t in the Christmas spirit much more than when I started (that’s a job for Christmas records, anyway). None of the shows was my cup of peppermint tea. Yet each had its good share of admirable and pleasurable elements, and the evident enjoyment of the audiences speaks to something of value. If I were to revisit one of these particular productions, it’d be the Portland Playhouse one, for its stylistic freshness and the overall level of execution. But whatever voice the Dickens Christmas message comes in, I’m quite sure I’m gonna hear it again.

About the author
Editor

Marty Hughley is a Portland journalist who writes about theater, dance, music and culture. His honors have included a National Arts Journalism Program fellowship at the University of Georgia, a fellowship at the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater at the University of Southern California, and first-place awards for arts reporting in the Society of Professional Journalists Pacific Northwest Excellence in Journalism Competitions. In 2013 he was inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame for his contributions to the industry. A Portland native, Hughley studied history at Portland State University, worked at the alternative newsweekly Willamette Week in the late 1980s as pop music critic and arts editor, then spent nearly a quarter century at The Oregonian as a reporter, feature writer and critic. His recent freelance work has appeared in Oregon ArtsWatch, Artslandia and the Oregon Humanities magazine. He lives with his cat, and dies a little with each new setback to the Trail Blazers.

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