Those expecting a traditional take on Charles Dickens’ classic holiday perennial may be in for a shock at the new Broadway version of “A Christmas Carol.” Or at least they might be terribly perplexed by this dour production, whose additions only subtract from the potency of the transformative tale.
While there have been many adaptations — from solo shows to musicals to ghostly imaginings — most stick pretty close to the storyline and character arc of the tightly crafted original. But this import from London’s Old Vic — here starring Campbell Scott — would certainly have Dickens scratching his noggin.
Killing Tiny Tim in the present and not in the maybe-future? That’s just one of many wrong-headed, time-warping misinterpretations in this new version, conjured minus any magic by playwright Jack Thorne (“Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”).
At least there’s a festive holiday air created by the singing actors before the show begins, with Christopher Nightingale’s lovely period music and the handing out of clementines and cookies to the audience. The end, too, echoes that communal spirit, with director Matthew Warchus pulling out all the bells and whistles — especially the handbells. It’s the in-between that’s cold and disorienting as a wasteland, and not just because of Ron Howell’s dismal set, which, save for a plethora of hanging lanterns, has little sense of place or purpose.
In that anonymous playing space, Dickens’ tale is told largely in story-theater fashion by members of the ensemble. But his “ghost story of Christmas” is bereft of a true haunting that would make for a soul-shaking experience. The appearance of Marley’s Ghost here is more of an unspectacular cameo, and the trio of spirits that follow are all cut from the same drab cloth. Though the production boasts Andrea Martin and LaChanze, both actors’ talents are wasted as the bland Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present. (Who thought it would be a good idea to hide LaChanze’s expressive eyes behind sunglasses?)
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Thorne seems more intent in giving Scrooge (Scott) additional psychological trauma to explain the character’s money-craving ways, including a drunken, abusive father who keeps reappearing, as if the young lad’s misery was not evident enough in the original.
But the absence of joy in others also diminishes the tale. Scrooge’s Christmas Past apprenticeship with the open-hearted Fezziwig now takes place at a funeral parlor. The present doesn’t make much of an impression with Scrooge either, with a lame holiday party thrown by Scrooge’s nephew Fred (Brandon Gill). Then there’s Tiny Tim’s premature exit.
Overall, there is no gradual awakening for this unvarying Scrooge. At the end of the first act, he is as defiant as ever, proclaiming, “I am a great man, do you hear me? A great man.”
The second act is filled with his further resolve — and more of Thorne’s odd add-ons: eyeball-rolling eulogies at Scrooge’s funeral; Scrooge’s attempt at a do-over with his long-ago love Belle (Sarah Hunt); the more prosaically-named “Christmas Future” in the guise of the spirit of his sister Fan (Rachel Prather); and even bringing Tiny Tim (Sebastian Ortiz, adorable) back to life.
But most troublesome is that in this version, Scrooge is moved to change his ways not by his realization of his connection to the community — indeed, humanity — but in the reflection of self. It takes a stuffed parrot from his boyhood to finally open his heart.
As for Scrooge, Scott (whose father George C. Scott created one of the more memorable interpretations of this holiday Hamlet of a role) is largely one-note, barking his lines as the unwavering grump until the end, when his transformation is ecstatic but kind of creepy, probably because it feels unearned. But don’t tell that to Marley and the other Ghosts, who make return visits to congratulate Scrooge for seeing the light. It’s party time.
That goes for the audience too, but while the communal ending may be fun for some — and not far afield from Dickens’ one-world view — the emphasis shifts from lessons learned to production gimmicks, including tumbling taters from the balcony and Brussels sprouts parachuted in for Scrooge’s big feast. In this version, it’s not about witnessing the redemption of a man and the retrieval of a lost soul. It’s all about the side dishes.