James Ridge's Scrooge is classically curmudgeonly.
A Christmas Carol is back at Children's Theater of Madison. After a brief hiatus (last year, CTM opted for the musical A Wonderful Life as its holiday show), the classic Christmas tale has returned to delight audiences of all ages this holiday season.
Performed in Overture Center's gorgeous Capitol Theater, A Christmas Carol is still the spectacle you expect and the story you know well. This year, though, it's something new. The beloved tale of Ebenezer Scrooge's transformation from selfish to selfless has a new twist. In this production -- an all-new adaptation by American Players Theatre's Colleen Madden -- Charles Dickens' story is told in a way that stays fairly true to the classic, while offering a gentle surprise or two along the way.
CTM's been producing A Christmas Carol for over 45 years, so it's not surprising they've got the essentials down: lush costumes, Christmas carols, ghosts that surprise and scare, a super-sweet Tiny Tim, cheerful dancing, and a snowfall at the end. The multilevel set creates four distinct focal points, but is set back from the audience a bit too far, leaving a gulf between the actors and the audience. Traditional carols are woven throughout the play, many of them hauntingly beautiful like "In the Bleak Midwinter" and the eerie "Coventry Carol." Mostly sung a cappella, the carols highlight the casts' vocal talent.
The cast is strong in all aspects. As Scrooge, APT's James Ridge is especially confident. This isn't surprising since he's an old pro -- Ridge was also CTM's Scrooge in 2009. His expertise shows, and his Scrooge is classically curmudgeonly. Tall and thin, a bit Abraham Lincoln-like in a tall top hat, Ridge looks the part perfectly. One of his best moments comes near the end of the play, when he surprises his impoverished employee Bob Cratchit with a long-overdue raise. Here, Ridge must play "new" Scrooge (joyful and kind) pretending to be "old" Scrooge (bitter and cruel). He does this delightfully and convincingly.
Joe Lullo's portrayal of Bob Cratchit is also noteworthy. Lullo allows Cratchit's humility and goodness to shine quietly in contrast to Scrooge's miserliness. The role of Bob Cratchit is easily overlooked -- he's a fairly one-dimensional character -- but without Cratchit, there can be no Scrooge. Where Scrooge is mean and world-weary, Bob Cratchit is kind and nave. Lullo plays the naveté without his character seeming foolish.
For the most part, Colleen Madden's adaptation works well. The overall frame of the story and the creative use of narrator help freshen up this oft-told tale. However, in a few spots, the retelling weakens the story by adding layers of sentimentality. When Scrooge hears some beautiful music in the heavens, for instance, he asks the Ghost of Christmas Present (jollily played by Mark Huismann) what he's hearing. The ghost informs him that they are voices "joined together by humankind at its best," and asks if Scrooge will sing along. Needless to say, Scrooge doesn't join in.
A Christmas Carol is like the bowl of candied yams on the holiday table. They're strange and beautiful, and distressingly sweet. You might not even like them all that much, but it wouldn't be Christmas without their sticky goodness. Children's Theater of Madison's all-new version of A Christmas Carol won't have you piling on seconds, but it does satisfy.