James Ridge in Children's Theater of Madison's A Christmas Carol
Ebenezer Scrooge and Tiny Tim on are as ubiquitous as peppermint lattes and mall Santas this time of year. They are a cherished, if standard, part of the holiday season. And while some audiences crave the familiar story of a wretched miser turned enlightened philanthropist in Victorian England, variations on the story abound, from slight reworks to radical new versions. Previously translated into musicals, a Muppets extravaganza, and a Lifetime movie of the week, there is even a Klingon version of the Scrooge story currently playing in Chicago.
Children's Theater of Madison stages A Christmas Carol in Overture Center's Capitol Theater through Dec. 23, offering an original spin on the classic morality story, one that strikes a wonderful balance between tradition and innovation. In an adaptation commissioned by CTM, American Players Theatre core company member Colleen Madden adds new scenes to the classic narrative, providing an imaginative and satisfying backstory for familiar characters. In a brilliant framing device, she also brings Tim Cratchit to center stage to tell the magical tale of Scrooge's transformation.
As Scrooge, APT core company member James Ridge dwells in the emotional extremes of his character. His scowling skinflint at the start of the play is as cold as the wintry London streets, even threatening to take a coin from a poor boy's pocket. Confronted by ghosts that night, he is comically knock-kneed in his terror. Allowed to mend his ways in the morning, he dances across the stage in giddy, childlike delight.
Consistent with this interpretation, Scrooge is upstaged by Tim Cratchit, played by another APT alum, Will Mobley. Not only does he revel in Dickens's language; he also delights in his character's ability to present each scene to the audience, cueing entrances, lights and sound effects like an enchanted stage manager. He moves effortlessly between his role as narrator and a participant in the story, morphing from a solicitor for charity, to a party guest, to a boys' school choir director and more. His specific characterizations -- unique accents, gestures and mannerisms for each part -- illustrate his considerable talent and make it hard to watch anyone else.
Other standouts in the enormous cast included Annelise Dickinson as the luminous Belle, Scrooge's lost love; Donavon Armbruster as his jolly former employer; and Mark Huismann as the jovial Spirit of Christmas Present.
There is also plenty of stage magic in this production to enchant audiences of all ages, from the spooky fog that accompanies apparitions, to twinkling stars that appear in the night sky, and a Ghost of Christmas Future that towers over both Scrooge and the audience. All of this is orchestrated by the adult Tim Cratchit, with a wave of his walking stick or a clap of his hands.
Charming musical interludes between scenes are often led by an accomplished quartet of carolers (Olivia de Waart, Nathan Lucas, Abby Nichols and Bart Terrell). Glen Kuenzi, a member of the young company, adds a lyrical violin accompaniment to many of the tunes. The second act, however, would benefit from fewer Christmas carols to keep the story moving.
The show as a whole would be improved with some editing. Many of the scenes seemed stuffed with chorus members. Some of these "extra" actors were miscast, while others struggled with even very small roles. True to its mission of providing theater experiences to young people, CTM features 25 children in the show, but could have presented a more professional looking production with half that number.
Overall, though, this is a fresh take on a familiar holiday tale that has more than enough magical moments to fill the heart with Christmas cheer.