Like with Hamlet, Cyrano, and King Kong, every generation puts its own stamp on Ebenezer Scrooge, even as the original endures bowdlerizing, Regietheater, pandering or, worst of all, embalming. Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella has been adapted in virtually every medium, beginning with the author’s own celebrated public readings and including more than two dozen for television and film. There’s a Muppet Christmas Carol, a Donald Duck Christmas Carol, a Mister Magoo Christmas Carol, a Jetsons’ Christmas Carol, a Barbie Christmas Carol, a Zombie Christmas Carol and an Ex-Hooker Christmas Carol, and those are just the Boomer era contributions. They join the film best, starring Alastair Sim and titled Scrooge, from 1954.
One of the worst, made for television 35 years ago, starred George C. Scott, one of the world’s great actors, slumming (though it is nearly saved by a mop-topped Roger Rees, who knew a thing or two about playing Dickens, as Scrooge’s indomitable nephew Fred). The Scott escutcheon is redeemed by Campbell Scott, son of George and Colleen Dewhurst and a formidable talent in his own right. You have a couple of months to watch as his Ebenezer transmutes from spiky, grumbling misanthropy to jolly good fellow, in the stage adaptation created by playwright Jack Thorne and director Matthew Warchus that’s settled into the Lyceum Theatre through New Year’s.
If you’re versed in the work of Warchus (Matilda, Groundhog Day, God of Carnage) and Thorne (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, King Kong) you may rightly assume a certain schizoid quality to this story of a cranky old bastard’s redemption from malign penury when his dead partner arranges an intervention by the spirits of Christmases past, present and future.
The Lyceum has been transformed by designers Rob Howell (set and costumes) and Hugh Vanstone (lighting) into a gloomish crypt lit to a refulgent glow by glass lanterns, hundreds of them, hung throughout the theater and heaped in mounds at either side of the stage. That’s pretty much it as scenery goes, except for the wooden crates emblazoned “Marley & Scrooge” that are reconfigured as desks and files, and four black doorframes that pop up when necessary to define a space.
Upon entering the theater, we are met with music (by composer, orchestrator and arranger Christopher Nightingale) played by a lively onstage band, as the actors garbed in Victoriana wander through the audience tossing clementines and chocolate chip cookies to all takers. You may spot, among the cheerful greeters, Andrea Martin (who will play the Ghost of Christmas Past) and LaChanze (Christmas Present).
The story gets underway when the over-miked company gathers onstage to declaim Dickens’ famous opening words: “Marley was dead: to begin with.” Replacing Scrooge’s standard white nightshirt is a luxurious scarlet robe that’s seen better days, but other than that, the story unfolds as Dickens wrote it: Scrooge waxes irksome at the very idea of Christmas, slams the door on carolers asking for alms, and abuses his assistant, Bob Cratchit (Dashiell Eaves, not overdoing it in the frightened-mouse department).
Once home, Scrooge is set upon by the ghost of Marley (Chris Hoch), dead these seven years but wandering the Heaviside Layer, having been as miserable a human as his partner, Marley has come to tell him he’d better pay attention to the three spirits that will follow, if he doesn’t want to end up in the same clanking Purgatory.
The first spirit on the scene is Christmas Past, with the agreeably laconic Martin berouged and looking as though she were on the lam from her Cirque-du-Soleily performance in Pippin. And here’s where purists may begin chewing their bangs, as Thorne takes odd liberties with the text. He gives young Scrooge (Dan Piering) and his sister Fan (Rachel Prather) an alcoholic abuser of a father (Hoch, doubling) who can’t pay his bills – meant, presumably, to explain Ebenezer’s later obsession with money.
Later, when he begins his apprenticeship, Scrooge’s employer Fezziwig (Evan Harrington) is a funeral director (huh?) whose daughter (Sarah Hunt) he falls in love with but declines to marry until he has made his fortune, by which time it’s too late.
Christmas Present leads Scrooge through town, passing by the house where Fred (Brandon Gill) and his family beckon him to join them, and then to the hovel where Cratchit and his wife (Erica Dorfler) make do with meager means and less food. Their children include the lame Tiny Tim, played at the performance I saw by the adorable and self-composed Sebastian Ortiz (whose Playbill bio boasts, “Watch out world, I have cerebral palsy but cerebral palsy doesn’t have me!”). London is scourged by empty storefronts and beggars in doorways that seem all too familiar. Inexplicably missing from this version is Dickens’ most haunting scene, Scrooge’s encounter with two near-naked children named, he is told, Ignorance and Want, whose parents are mankind and whose fate, if unaltered, is Doom.
A transformed Scrooge oversees a Christmas feast that begins at Fred’s and moves to the Cratchit household while bringing the entire theater into the action most amusingly, as fake snow falls all around us. Through it all, Campbell Scott has been gruff, spiky, grumpy and humor resistant without overdoing it. It’s an admirable performance, if not overly involving, at least until the end, which is a killer.
For my money, the best Christmas Carol (possibly after the Muppets) was the gloriously over-the-top 2003 musical version with a gorgeous score by Alan Menken and Lynn Ahrens, and book by Ahrens and Mike Ockrent. That aside, there’s talk of this production, an import from Warchus’ London-based Old Vic theater, becoming a perennial. That would be fine, but please, a little less smoke, and a lighter hand on the volume control.