When the narrator (a charismatic Joe Boersma) invited the packed house in Overture's Capitol Theater to come closer to hear a very special story -- one that absolutely cannot begin with "once upon a time" -- there was a sense that hundreds of velvet- and taffeta-clad children and their parents leaned in to be newly amazed and enchanted by the classic tale of Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol.
There is no doubt that the production by Children's Theater of Madison, playing through Dec. 23, is a well-worn holiday tradition for some families. (Artistic director Roseann Sheridan notes in the program that the company has produced it for 35 years.) And since most of the audience arrives knowing the tale of the miserable miser Scrooge turned merry philanthropist, the delight in returning comes from seeing young people experience it for the first time, and from seeing variations in the storytelling that deepen the characters, underline the message of generosity and forgiveness in a new way, or simply reinvigorate old conventions.
One of the best variations in CTM's production is the script: This is the fourth season that the company is using Colleen Madden's intelligent and creative adaptation of the classic Dickens tale. It cleverly and deftly embroiders the story, adding a few fresh, satisfying twists while remaining true to the lines and scenes we all know by heart.
John Pribyl, an accomplished classical actor who spent the last four summers at American Players Theatre, is also a new addition to the show, playing the iconic role of Ebenezer Scrooge. He wears the part well, already possessing a voice, physicality and age befitting Scrooge -- traits that other actors in the role have to manufacture. Giddy in his eventual conversion, Pribyl's happiness that he can still affect his fate and the welfare of those around him bubbles up as if heavy chains have indeed been lifted from around his neck.
As narrator and fully grown Tim Cratchit, Joe Boersma is a great guide to the audience -- his gentle but enthusiastic storytelling keeps the play moving and adds real humor when he occasionally joins a scene as a shopkeeper or schoolmaster. It is his first time in the part, which seems like it was written for him.
Standouts in the supporting cast also include newcomers to their roles: Bill Bolz makes a frightening but not cartoonish Marley's Ghost, Shawn Goodman Jones puts both his stature and his beautiful singing voice to good use as the Ghost of Christmas Present, and David Meldman gives audiences a tiny glimpse of a younger Scrooge who had a chance at a different life.
And while some young performers were ushered on and off stage as crowd-fillers, a few even mugging for their grandparents in the audience, 10-year-old Julia Amann turned in one of the most nuanced performances of the night as the glittering Ghost of Christmas Past.
James Ridge directs the show for the first time this year, after appearing as Scrooge for the past several seasons. He brings a focus to the play that helps the production immensely -- scenes feel more connected and story arcs are more well-rounded for both major and minor characters. He relies more on his actors and less on melodramatic stage effects to make a big impact.
Ridge's vision is realized beautifully with an ingenious rotating set framed by an engraving of a 19th-century London street scene (by Christopher Dunham), magical lighting design (by Jason Fassl) and haunting sound design (by Jack Sayre).
If you revisit the vivid characters and heartwarming message of A Christmas Carol each year out of a sense of tradition, you will not be disappointed in this production. If you want to be excited and charmed by new flourishes to classic story, you will be delighted.