A Christmas Carol is now a rite of December, and permutations of the story seem endless. Some paint Ebenezer Scrooge as a cartoonish villain akin to Dr. Seuss’ Grinch, who undergoes a fantastic transformation when shown the error of his miserly ways and the consequences of his indifference to those suffering around him. Others emphasize the fairy tale magic inherent in the story — the ghosts flying with Scrooge over London, transporting him back to the past and into the future. And sometimes A Christmas Carol becomes a spectacle of excess with more lights and astonishing special effects, grander costumes and fancier production numbers every year.
But obscuring this story with dramatic hyperbole does a disservice to its message, as is beautifully demonstrated by Children’s Theater of Madison’s nuanced production of the Dickens classic, directed by Jim Ridge and adapted by Colleen Madden, onstage in the Capitol Theater at Overture Center through Dec.23.
This version of the play begins with an anxious host of a holiday party, mourning the loss of a dear friend instead of celebrating with his guests. He is persuaded to tell the story of A Christmas Carol to the gathering, carrying on the tradition to honor his friend’s memory. The narrator (a dashing Casey Hoekstra) gains both confidence and holiday mirth as he spins the familiar (and ultimately very personal) tale for the audience, commanding sets to change and the curtain to rise with a wave of his hand. Throughout the show, he occasionally enters the scene as a minor character, or takes charge of sound effects, such as ringing the bell on the door of Scrooge’s office.
Audience members who have enjoyed CTM’s Christmas Carol before will recognize the cleverly designed, rotating set, the faint engraving of 19th-century London projected on a screen in the background and the quartet of carolers who brighten scene transitions with their lovely renditions of holiday songs. But they will also enjoy a Christmas Carol that is more subdued, more polished and more poignant than many we’ve seen in the past.
Much of that change in tone is owed to David Daniel, who dons the nightcap and robe of the skinflint Scrooge for the first time in his career. A classically trained actor who has spent the last 16 years at American Players Theatre, both onstage and as the education director. He infuses the role with equal parts steely gravity and tender heart. Daniel also plays Scrooge at his own age — experienced and hardened by life, but far from elderly, which makes him much more accessible and recognizable to audiences. It also gives his redemption more weight: This is not a deathbed conversion. This Scrooge will become a better man for decades to come. When Scrooge watches his younger self lose Belle, his heartbreak is raw and real. When he finally throws off the chains, he doesn’t just change because he’s been frightened by ghosts; he discovers he has the power and the opportunity to live a better, happier life, more connected to those around him.
Another delightful change this year is the addition of Colleen Madden to the cast, both as the ghost of Jacob Marley and the Ghost of Christmas Present. As Scrooge’s doomed business partner, Madden wheezes and shrieks while her body remains in constant pained motion under a mantle of chains. Her skeletal face is a grim warning to Scrooge, and the most frightening image in the play. Transformed into the Ghost of Christmas Present, Madden sports a dramatic wig of auburn curls and a vibrant white dress with a green mantle. In a sharp departure from previous characterizations as boisterous, jolly gods of plenty, this ghost is able to celebrate the present while also being aware of its dangers. Her warning, “This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. And, Ebenezer, beware them both; but most of all beware this boy, for unless you deny Ignorance, he will bring doom,” resonates deeply.
Overall, the cast is more impressive this year, populated with actors with credits from APT, Milwaukee Rep, Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater and Chicago Shakespeare Theater. For instance, Rob Doyle and Andrea San Miguel give stellar performances in relatively small parts as young Scrooge and his fiancée Belle, and then again as flirtatious guests at a party. Joshua Krause brings great levity and energy to the role of Scrooge’s nephew Fred. Matching him line for line is Liz Cassarino, who plays Fred’s wife. She is baffled by Scrooge’s antisocial behavior, but melts when Ebenezer comes to her door on Christmas morning begging her pardon and asking to join the festivities. And speaking of melting hearts, Guidry Ridge’s Tiny Tim is wonderful as the story’s most vulnerable character — the sickly son of Bob Cratchit (played by a pitch-perfect Eric Schabla).
By linking Scrooge, Tiny Tim and the story’s narrator in a touching scene at the end of the play, the message of our interconnectivity comes through clearly: Now, just as in 1840s London, we must take care of one another — at Christmastime and throughout the year. In the words of Jacob Marley, “Charity, mercy, forbearance and benevolence are our business.”