A Christmas Carol Lantern

Theatrical takes on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol have become as much of a fixture of the holiday season as Christmas trees, sprigs of holly, Santa Claus at the mall, and the notorious fruitcake which gets passed along from one repulsed recipient to the next.

Admittedly, some of those productions can be as stale as that holdover fruitcake from last year. The best theatre companies, however, are always looking for new ways of approaching that time-tested classic. For the next week or so, we can enjoy two imaginative treatments of the redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge on local stages and streaming services. Lantern Theatre is reprising its one-man show featuring a tour-de-force performance by Anthony Lawton with inventive use of limited props, while People’s Light Theatre in Malvern has put up a rousing rewrite of the classic by Zak Berkman, who also happens to be producing director of People’s Light. (We reviewed the Lantern production in its first iteration two years ago.)

While the Lantern-Lawton take is a minimalist version of the classic, People’s Light Carol can only be called a maximalist version. With a cast of almost two dozen actors and musicians, this production goes all out to entertain and enlighten us. The well-wrought script is augmented with gusts of toe-tapping, hand-clapping music. This is mega-theatre all the way through, a holiday treat for the eyes, ears and hearts. A quartet playing warm holiday music greets us as we take our seats, and the animating  entertainment doesn’t let up until the cast and musical team take their bows.

Zak Berkman’s Carol remains largely faithful to the scope and course of Dickens’ original. Berkman also borrows a good deal of Dickens’ language. But Berkman’s adaptation of the story puts special emphasis on certain themes particularly relevant to our own time, such as the suffering of the poor and the disenfranchised that dig somewhat below the surface of the Dickens’ model.

The early going of this Christmas Carol doesn’t deviate a whit from Dicken’s classic. Scrooge proudly exhibits total disdain for the fripperies of Christmas and spews out sentiments telling us that a hard heart is the best guide for survival in his all too hard world.

After the first scenes where we encounter the standard-issue curmudgeon Scrooge – who, truth be told, is pretty much a caricature –  People’s Light lifts off and gives us a much more complex and nuanced Scrooge. We’re brought on a visit to his childhood as a dejected victim of paternal neglect, the only child left alone at a cold boarding school during the holidays. We then trundle ahead to the early days of his business career, when Jacob Marley steps in not only as a mentor, but also as the substitute father figure young Scrooge has long sought.

Along the way, we get to see the younger Ebenezer Scrooge as an affectionate older brother, an insecure intern in a large accounting company, and a young swain in love who fails to see that love and full emotional commitment are much more valuable than money. His failure in that affair scuttles Scrooge’s chance for a happy married life and sets him on the course of toxic cynicism. 

The thorny path this Scrooge is seen to travel makes his radical transformation even more believable. Writer Berkman lets us perceive the pain deep within Scrooge through most of the excursions to  his own past. This mix of pain, warmed-over memories, and recognition of lost opportunities is rendered masterfully in the nuanced performance of Ian Merrill Peakes as the adult Scrooge. Even Anthony Lawton over at Lantern Theatre is unable to deliver quite as sympathetic a Scrooge.

Due to prior commitments, Ian Merrill Peakes has to leave the live cast this weekend. David Ingram will step in as Scrooge starting on Christmas Eve, though Peakes will continue to appear as Scrooge on the streamed version available from December 24.

But this production is much more than one strong central performance. Writer Berkman, director David Bradley and the wonderfully talented and enthusiastic cast make decisions that keep the show move along at a steady pace from start to finish. And numerous inventive touches assure that this Carol will be one of the freshest you’ll have ever seen.

For instance, the Ghost of Christmas Present is presented as a jovial Caribbean lady who makes her entrance on a mobile throne. By the way, the actress who plays the Christmas Present ghost – Zonya Love – has a fantastic singing voice, one that has already graced Broadway and regional stages all across the country, and she gives us ample evidence of this talent here.

Indeed, live music is a major part of this production. Music? It’s a bountiful feast of music that gets served up on the People’s Light stage. There are individual voices, group singing, while in addition to the non-traditional string quartet, there are guitars, winds, even an accordion

Many of the songs are traditional Christmas carols or folk favorites, while others are original pieces written by Berkman. But even some of the traditional tunes have been assigned new lyrics as Berkman focuses the pieces on the central themes of this retelling of the classic. As the program notes, there are “samplings, remixes and re-arrangements throughout”.

The acting was strong at every point. In addition to the stellar performance of Peakes as grown-up Scrooge and Zoyna Love, there were exceptional performances by Maboud Ebrahimzadeh as Bob Cratchit; Nathan M. Ramsey as Scrooge’s nephew Fred and Scrooge himself as a young man; also Dorcas Leung as Scrooge’s youthful love, Belle, and other roles, and … Thundering blazes! Now that I’ve started, I should really go on to distribute praise to all twenty plus actors. Not having enough space in this review, let me simply say this was a wonderful ensemble achievement with not a single weak performance. And cords of kudos are also due to all those in the lighting, stage design, sound design, costuming and music arrangement team.

This critique is likely to be the last theatre review to appear in the Press Review newspapers for some time – maybe for a very long time. It’s therefore fitting that this last look in (for the foreseeable future) treated one of the most accomplished and moving shows that I have reviewed in the nearly three years I’ve been covering the local theatre scene.

Live performances of People’s Light’s A Christmas Carol runs through January 6 at the Leon C. Haas Stage, 39 Conestoga Rd., Malvern. While all these performances are presently sold out, there are always late cancellations. Phone the box office the day of a performance to see what might be available.

The filmed version will be available via streaming from Dec. 24 though January 6. Again, call the box office to book your invitation to stream the production.

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