A.C.T’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ provides standard ode to holiday season

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He’s been represented as a duck, a muppet, a Flintstone and Bill Murray — Ebenezer Scrooge of Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella “A Christmas Carol” is as constant a figure of Christmastime as the man in the red velvet suit himself. Though countless adaptations have attempted to bring Scrooge to life for contemporary audiences, American Conservatory Theater’s, or A.C.T.’s, Geary Theater staged a classic adaptation, one that reflects the conservatory’s 42-year tradition of performing the play.

A.C.T.’s “A Christmas Carol” breathes little fresh air into Dickens’ classic tale, though its cast, choreography and costuming are demonstrably strong. That’s not to say the show is lackluster. By no means is its nearly two-hour run time, which rarely drags, a terrible way to get into the Christmas spirit. This adaptation from Carey Perloff and Paul Walsh is heart-filled and tradition-fueled, and the performance on the Geary stage, directed by Domenique Lozano, scarcely missed a beat in bringing in the Christmas whimsy.

With a cast composed of 50 actors, 28 of whom are younger than 14 years old, the organic stage arrangement of the cast is a feat in itself — one that surpasses all expectations. Where “A Christmas Carol” shined brightest was in its detail-oriented staging; throughout the first few scenes, two young actors (Jilliyn Acosta and Rebecca Louderback) ice-skate in the background, for no purpose other than to remind viewers they’re in a winter wonderland. The child actors of the show are of the utmost professionalism, with their performances genuinely endearing and remarkably devoid of cheap shots at winning audience hearts through “cutesiness.”

Much of the play’s holiday magic (read: embellished staging) is reserved for the three spirits who visit Scrooge (James Carpenter in the Dec. 12 opening night performance, with Anthony Fusco alternating the role). Its set design is intentionally minimalistic, resembling the neighborhood of a Victorian pop-up book. A sense of childish whimsy comes through in the light-up swing and puppet used for two of the three spirits. But this playfulness is most legible within the character arc of Scrooge, who soon finds himself being just as goofy as his flashback self and the children of Bob Cratchit (Jomar Tagatac, in a wholly empathetic performance).

Yet perhaps the holiday cheer overcomes Scrooge a few ghouls too early. While Scrooge’s developed silliness provides many of the performance’s laughs, the audience gets the sense that were this Scrooge to escape the spirits’ procession early on, he would still do all the good he does at the play’s end. By the time he meets the Ghost of Christmas Present (Catherine Castellanos), Scrooge is entirely ready to save Tiny Tim (Sophia Koshland) without reservation, leaving the Ghost of Christmas Future, though the figure is stunningly brought to life, to feel narratively unnecessary.

Although Scrooge is thoroughly authoritarian and cruel in the first scene, he’s possibly not cruel enough — A.C.T.’s Scrooge comes across as silly and endearing not far into the show. Even though the audience remains laughing at, rather than with, Scrooge for most of the play, this choice ultimately diminishes the strength of his character arc.

This is no comment on Carpenter’s acting — his performance as Scrooge was simultaneously nuanced and exuberant, and it’s complemented by an immensely talented cast. Standout performances came from Dan Hiatt as Mr. Fezziwig and Sharon Lockwood as both Mrs. Dilber and Mrs. Fezziwig. The comedic chops of both actors provided constant chuckles. Avanthika Srinivasan’s Beth, though only allocated a few lines, garnered laughs in a notably short amount of time. Jerrie R. Johnson’s poise as Scrooge’s lost love, Belle, was best conveyed by her commanding affect in memories of Christmas past.

“A Christmas Carol” is filled with impressive dance interludes choreographed by Val Caniparoli wherein the stunning, canopian dresses of Victorian England twirl like snowflakes winding their way to the ground. It’s these details — from the staging, to the costumes, to the snow that occasionally falls to the ground — that grease the performance’s wheels. And while, in the larger scheme of “A Christmas Carol” adaptations or even in the tradition of the classic play, A.C.T. might not reinvent the wheel, it keeps the ball rolling.

“A Christmas Carol” runs through Dec. 29 at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater.

Contact Caroline Smith at [email protected].