It is a testament to both the staying power of Charles Dickens’ classic Christmas tale and to the persistent bad behavior of capitalists that “A Christmas Carol” is as relevant as ever.
In an apocalyptic mess of a year like 2016, every work of art is peddling its own timeliness — American Conservatory Theater’s “A Christmas Carol” included. The opening scene finds ensemble members in a bustling London street holding picket signs reading “Tax the Rich!” while Ebenezer Scrooge’s insistence that the poor belong in prisons and workhouses rings a disturbingly familiar bell. If only his jubilant, overnight change of heart rang true as well.
Now 40 years old, A.C.T.’s production of “A Christmas Carol,” adapted by Paul Walsh and Carey Perloff, is a reliable Bay Area holiday tradition. “A Christmas Carol” is to live theater what “The Nutcracker” is to ballet — it is often a child’s first experience with an unfamiliar medium. This straightforward, charming version of Dickens’ festive ghost story is a great entry point, but also remains entertaining fare for the adults in the audience.
That is largely thanks to the veteran actors of the show. Character alternate Anthony Fusco is a delightfully crabby Scrooge, leaning into the humor of the role without getting vaudevillian. The ease with which his icy heart melts when confronted with visions of his happier past removes some of the dramatic punch of his later conversion, but Fusco’s giddiness is infectious. The highlights of “A Christmas Carol” are the party-loving Fezziwigs, Scrooge’s former employers, who bring some much-needed color to Scrooge’s drab world. The redheaded couple is played with exuberant comic joy by Colin Thomson and Sharon Lockwood (who also plays Scrooge’s exasperated maid Mrs. Dilber). Lockwood proves herself as a Bay Area treasure with two very funny performances.
Where this production falters is in its inconsistent use of music. Existing carols make their way into the show to lovely effect, but original songs by Karl Lundeberg are cloying and frankly kind of weird. It’s unfortunate that the magical, glittering entry of the princess-like Ghost of Christmas Past is marred by a forgettably corny song she has to sing on the way in. Luckily, this version’s attempt at becoming a work of musical theater is too half-hearted to ruin anything, and the show successfully avoids the sad fate of being a bad musical.
The visuals are also somewhat hit or miss. The painted city backdrop is uninspiring, whereas the transitions between ghost encounters that leave Scrooge alone on the misty stage enshrouded in mist are gorgeously theatrical. Two major party scenes deliver the requisite dose of bright ball gowns and punch-induced holiday merriment, including an adorable moment with the children of the A.C.T.’s Young Conservatory program imitating the dancing of the adults.
Much of the show is genuinely eerie. The Ghost of Jacob Marley (Ken Ruta) is a chilling vision with a shock of white hair, weighed down with chains. The Ghost of Christmas Future, a giant dementor looking specter that engulfs the entire stage in a shroud of misery, is downright terrifying.
A.C.T.’s “A Christmas Carol” is decidedly old-fashioned and utterly charming. Its consciously multicultural cast and call for basic kindness feel more necessary than usual. The show’s flaws — the uncomfortable musical numbers, the inescapable sticky sweet sentimentality of Tiny Tim’s whole arc — are minor compared to the overall pleasure of this Christmas ritual.