There was certainly no malice behind my missing this time-honored classic. A Christmas Carol is one of those stories I felt as though I had experienced every December whether I climbed the hill to Playhouse or not. It’s a Wonderful Life covered it. Bill Murray Scrooged it up. Michael Caine donned the old stovepipe hat in a Muppet interpretation. In fact, Wikipedia’s list of adaptations — operas, graphic novels, episodes of Beavis and Butt-Head — is nearly as long as Charles Dickens’ original novella.
Besides, don’t we all take for granted what is always there? A year zips by and while I mean to catch, say, the Downton Abbey costume exhibition at the Taft Museum, somehow I never quite make it. This distraction is compounded around the holidays — Carol and many other Christmas offerings in the city have been on my well-worn “definitely this year!” list for, let’s see, how many years has Playhouse been producing this show? Twenty six!?
Recently, a friend invited my husband and me to attend the final dress rehearsal for Playhouse’s A Christmas Carol and I seized the opportunity to break my slump. Before the production, I remembered most of the Carol punch list. Miserly Ebenezer Scrooge demonstrates what a crotchety skinflint he can be; following a particularly crabby Christmas Eve, he is visited by four spirits. First comes his seven-years-dead business partner, Jacob Marley, who set Scrooge down his miserly path in the first place. Marley bears a warning: Don’t make the same mistakes I did, Ebenezer. “You have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate!”
Scrooge is then visited by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, each of whom peers through time to give Ebenezer a glimpse of the man he once was, of the coldness he is casting into the world and of how little joy he will leave behind when he goes.
All this I had already known. What I had forgotten of the story, and what Playhouse’s production resurrected for me, is how eager Scrooge is to change, how little convincing he requires. Bruce Cromer’s Scrooge is frightened, yes — he finds a dead man in his bed, for heaven’s sake. But while fear grabs Ebenezer’s attention, it is truly love that seems to thaw his heart over the course of the escapade. Scrooge has lost his way.
In early scenes (which again I’d forgotten — they are perhaps too nuanced to include in Christmas-themed Honey Nut Cheerios commercials) we witness Ebenezer as a young man in love.
We discover that the nephew he had been so curt to is the only son of Scrooge’s late, beloved sister. Scrooge had friends once; he was loved once. He has forgotten all of this over time and needs to be shaken firmly by the shoulders.
I was laughing at Scrooge at the beginning — Cromer is a flailing and silly Scrooge when he wants to be — but by the end I was trying to remember when I last phoned my grandmother. His revelation is catching.
I will defend The Muppet Christmas Carol until I die, but live theater is an ideal venue to experience the full intensity of this story. As with any other work written more than 170 years in the past, you need a talented and energetic cast to translate and amplify the now-antiquated comedy threaded throughout the show.
This year’s Playhouse cast achieves this energy without breaking a sweat. Annie Fitzpatrick and Douglas Rees as Mrs. and Mr. Fezziwig bring more frisky flirtation to the stage than I thought Dickens’ sooty script would be capable of. Sara Masterson is delightful as Scrooge’s childhood sweetheart Belle; so too is Kelly Mengelkoch as Tiny Tim’s steadfast mother.
Most endearing in this cast — besides the many children, of course, who portray their various roles admirably — is Ryan Wesley Gilreath as Bob Cratchit, playing at an Ichabod Crane gangliness but with a wholesome charm worthy of the Hallmark Channel. There is a gallows humor to temper each moment of buoyant Christmas lightness, including the hair-raising scenes courtesy of Gregory Procaccino’s Jacob Marley.
Director Michael Evan Haney has assembled a flexible team and keeps them moving at a fever pitch through the two-hour show. Truly! I’ll admit I even clutched at my armrest once or twice as well-choreographed children skirted within inches of open trap doors. In the dark. Actors ignore blocking instructions at their own peril in this production.
At CityBeat’s suggestion (and with Playhouse’s generosity), I later attended a proper performance of A Christmas Carol, this time with my mother. She had never seen Playhouse’s Carol either. It was interesting to watch the show again, this time sitting beside the person who “kept Christmas” in our household, who instilled a sense of charity in our hearts and gratitude for what we had (always just enough, in a way that would have baffled Scrooge). We both agreed Carol is truly as timeless a story as they come; you can knock the coal dust off and still find a great deal of relevance beneath.
Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost-Story of Christmas (yes, its full title, log that away for Jeopardy some day) in 1843, and while the Victorian Christmas lacked Elf on a Shelf and ugly sweater contests, themes of “charity, mercy, forbearance and benevolence” still ring true.
If you are anything like me, you will leave the theater ready to make some immediate changes, to grasp what sand is left in the hourglass. And hug your mom.
See Playhouse’s A Christmas Carol. Maybe not this year, but don’t wait a quarter century. Consider me your Marley: Don’t make the mistakes I did! There is still time!
A CHRISTMAS CAROL is onstage at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, in Eden Park at 962 Mount Adams Circle, through Dec. 31. Tickets and more info: cincyplay.com.