ORLANDO — The Orlando Shakespeare Theater’s production of “A Christmas Carol” opens with a novel concept: a family is getting ready to celebrate Christmas Eve when they head into the attic in search of holiday decorations, and a small child finds a book.
When he asks what the book is, one of the adults smiles and says it’s Charles Dickens’ classic, “A Christmas Carol.” The adults then reenact the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge, the sour old miser who opens the story by dismissing Christmas with a sneer of “Bah humbug,” but becomes a radically changed man by the end.
Once they begin the story — starting with Scrooge working in his office on Christmas Eve, grumbling about how his employee, Bob Cratchit, wants the holiday off with pay — the production becomes a very faithful version of the Dickens story. In fact, the script by Jim Helsinger, the Shakespeare Theater’s artistic director, follows Dickens virtually word for word.
As can be expected, the Shakes offers its audience a beautifully mounted production, with first-rate performances by Steven Patterson as Scrooge, Steven Lane as Bob Cratchit, and Paul Bernardo as the ghost of Marley. The Victorian-era costumes are impeccably designed, as are the sets. The director, Michael Carleton, ingeniously manages to make the production alternately funny, touching, and scary.
What’s also intriguing about this production is that for all of the tale’s irresistible sentimentality, they also put a pretty solid emphasis on the fact that this is, in part, a chilling ghost story as well. When Marley’s tormented spirit first appears in Scrooge’s bedroom, decked out in chains and warning Scrooge of the horrific fate that might befall him, the effect is eerie and startling. As they have in past productions of horror classics, like “Frankenstein” and “Dracula,” the Shakes’ technical crew uses an ingenious amount of sound and lighting effects to grip us and rattle our chains.
It’s interesting to note that this month, there are at least six theater versions of “A Christmas Carol” playing across Central Florida, ranging from David A. McElroy’s one-man version where he plays all 37 roles to “Dickens By Candlelight” (also playing at the Orlando Shakes, through Monday) that employs three actors, to “Bah Humbug!,” a comedic version of the original story playing at the Daytona Playhouse. (The Orlando Shakespeare Theater’s version uses nine actors, effectively, to cover all the roles.)
No question that “A Christmas Carol” is pure catnip for theaters around this time of the year, in the same way that television stations can’t resist showing the 1946 movie “It’s A Wonderful Life” every December (the Ruth Henegar Center for the Arts in Melbourne is now showing a stage version of the Frank Capra classic through Sunday).
What is it about these two stories that have proven so endurable around the holidays, as easy to find as wreaths, bargain deals at the malls and sappy TV commercials? Obviously, the upbeat, uplifting, tear-in-the-eye and emotionally rewarding endings for both Scrooge and George Bailey help quite a bit, although it’s interesting to note the different paths that Dickens and Capra take to get there.
Dickens gave his audience a fairly grumpy and pessimistic leading character — at various times I’ve seen stage productions where Scrooge has been portrayed as a mean, scowling figure, and at other times, a comical one — who is probably not someone most people in the audience can instantly relate to. How many of us, after all, bitterly dismiss the notion of enjoying Christmas?
But it’s probably also true that most people won’t easily relate to George Bailey, the very altruistic everyman who gives up his grand dreams and ambitions to stay in Bedford Falls and keep his father’s tiny savings and loan from collapsing. Probably not many of us would be that selfless, and ditch all our dreams like George did just for a business that barely made a profit. Scrooge thinks people who want to help others are saps; George worries that he’s a sap for wanting to benefit his neighbors.
In “A Christmas Carol,” Scrooge discovers the joy of giving to others, of replacing the lump of coal in his heart with a desire to bring happiness to those around him. In “It’s a Wonderful Life,” good guy George Baily starts to believe he’s been a failure — until his family, friends and neighbors prove him wrong. In both instances, we get that emotionally packed, soaring lift at the end when the unhappiness and misery gets washed away.
The Orlando Shakespeare Theater follows the formula to a T, and it works. We all want reaffirmation around the holiday season that yes, there is good reason to be hopeful and thankful for what we have. And if a grump like Scrooge can figure that out, we’re all looking good.
“A Christmas Carol” is playing at the Lowndes Shakespeare Center at 812 E. Rollins St. in Orlando through Dec. 28. Tickets are $10-40, and reservations can be made by calling 407-447-1700.
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