My eight-year-old son Ryan knows who Scrooge McDuck is but had never seen a full-fledged production of A Christmas Carol until this West End import favored us. In a major parental fail, however, I forgot to tell him about the function of an intermission. As the first act ended, with Tiny Tim dead and the miser implicated in Scrooge’s future nightmare, he looked at me worriedly and said, “That’s it? That’s the end?”
It wasn’t. (Sorry for the spoiler, Dickens newbies.) Truth be told I was a bit fretful myself. After a cheery preshow, with clementines and cookies doled out by the performers and the first of numerous carols sung, the production gets down to brass tacks, family-friendly but rather dour, suppressing even the always delightful Andrea Martin, who plays the Ghost of Christmas Past. Fear not: adapter Jack Thorne (of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) and director Matthew Warchus are in full command of this emotional rollercoaster, and star Campbell Scott ably manages the peaks and valleys. Assuming a role his father played in an acclaimed TV version in 1984, this more inward and recessive Scott underplays the “bah, humbug” aspects of the character in favor of a more acute psychological portrait. (Diagnosis: daddy issues, regarding the penny-pinching one who disdained him and the gentler father figure, parent to the woman he loved and lost, whom he betrayed in his quest for riches.)
His inner darkness is underlined by another stellar West End-derived design, companion to those of Betrayal and The Inheritance this season – smart and subtle, as the lovely, spooky lanterns overhead dim with each dire revelation, then fade away completely. As Scrooge’s heart begins to change, so too does the tenor of the show, which fills with stage magic I shall not reveal (except to say that Brussels sprouts are involved). Hats off to scenic and costume designer Rob Howell, lighting designer Hugh Vanstone, sound designer Simon Baker and the hair and wig designers at Campbell Young Associates for a production that’s foreboding and festive in equal measure.
My quibbles are few. LaChanze, as the Ghost of Christmas Present, sounds off about economic imbalances in a way that suggests Elizabeth Warren more than Dickens, and toward the end Thorne’s adaptation veers into Oprah territory (“you’re part of my story”) and even Saving Private Ryan (“Earn this!”). No matter – this is a hearty Christmas Carol, one that eventually won over the perturbed third grader by my side, with a splendid Tiny Tim in plucky Sebastian Ortiz, a performer undeterred by cerebral palsy. Broadway bless us, everyone!