Thursday, December 06, 2007

A Christmas Carol

It’s a foggy night in Sacramento town.

Sacramento Theater Company’s new fog apparatus is very effective in creating the proper atmosphere for the 20th anniversary production of “A Christmas Carol,” directed this year by first time STC director Michael Laun. Laun has a few new tricks up his sleeve, giving a fresh new look to the STC annual favorite.

The fun begins before the audience enters the theater, with a nicely decorated lobby, complete with Christmas tree, the “real” Santa for the little kids to visit, and a group of carolers on the small lobby stage, getting everyone in the mood.

And then, of course, there is STC’s 1987 specially commissioned adaptation of the Dickens classic, by Richard Hellesen (who was in the audience on opening night of this anniversary production). Music was written by STC’s then resident composer David de Berry.

“I was trying to turn a lot of narrative into a lot less stage dialogue,” said the playwright. “David was trying to write wonderful new music that would sound like wonderful old music you hadn’t heard before.”

In the end the collaboration succeeded in both goals, evidenced by its continued popularity 20 years later. Hellesen used the device of having the characters tell the story as they move sets and then move in to become the characters about whom they are speaking. DeBerry’s music does indeed sound like old Christmas music that you can’t quite place, but you’re sure you’ve heard somewhere before.

As always, STC has assembled a stellar cast. This the fourth year I’ve seen this show and I have to confess a special preference for Matt K. Miller in the role of the quintessential Scrooge, Ebenezer. Miller becomes a crusty curmudgeon who is able to express the anger of a man at the end of his life, the pain of loss, the pathos of man whose feelings are being reawakened, and the exuberance of a small child equally well. The “a-ha!” moments of Ebenezer’s life are skillfully handled.

Patrick Murphy steps into the chains of Jacob Marley, come to warn his old partner of the pain that will befall him if he does not change his ways. Marley sets up the visits of three spirits who will help him to look back over his life in the hope of helping him make some changes before it is too late.

Katie Rubin (whom audiences may remember for her emotional, riveting one-woman show last year) makes an unusual entrance as the Ghost of Christmas Past (later playing Mrs. Cratchitt), who takes Ebenezer on his 3-night journey of discovery. Rubin brings a real tenderness to the role which adds an extra layer to the ghost’s character.

Reprising her role from last year, Anna Miles is Ebenezer’s sister Fan, who comes to bring him home from school. She sings the beautiful “Home at Christmastide,” reminding Ebenezer of the young beggar child (Joelle Jacoby) he had spurned the day before. (Miles alternates in this role with Amanda Salmon.)

STC Managing Director Mark Standriff again tackles three roles in this show. He first appears as a “Subscription Gentleman,” come to ask Scrooge for a holiday donation for the poor. He is next seen as the ebullient Fezziwig, Ebenezer’s old boss (whose wife is played by the marvelous Lucinda Hitchcock Cone). Fezziwig celebrated Christmas as a grand holiday, meant to be celebrated with vigor (giving Ebenezer pause, as he remembers his refusal to give his clerk an extra lump of coal to warm his hands), and finally Standriff is the larger than life Ghost of Christmas Present, whose entrance is always the high point of the production.

The Ghost shows Ebenezer the party at the home of his nephew Fred (Brett Williams), who has never given up trying to establish a relationship with the brother of his late mother.

He is then shown the meager but loving celebration at the home of Scrooge’s clerk, Bob Cratchitt (Gillen Morrison reprising the role he played so beautifully last year, as well as this). Ebenezer is moved by the ailing Tiny Tim (tiny Jackson Margolis, who alternates in the role with Campbell Salmon, who played the role last year).

Howard Gray is appropriately sepulchral as the mute Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.

In the end, of course, Scrooge’s heart grew three sizes that day.
And the minute his heart didn't feel quite so tight, he bought food for the Cratchitt feast.
And we can assume that over at Nephew Fred’s, he himself carved the roast beast.

The STC Christmas Carol is a not-to-be-missed Christmas experience. It’s 20 years old and just gets better and better.

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