American Conservatory Theater’s ‘A Christmas Carol: On Air’ brings holiday cheer to Bay Area ears

Photo of Christmas Carol
Kevin Berne/Courtesy

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Performances of “A Christmas Carol” are undoubtedly a holiday tradition, one that the American Conservatory Theater, or ACT, has sustained for more than 40 years. This year is no exception, as the theater was unable to be stopped by the pandemic. As a continuation of its past efforts, the ACT’s production of “A Christmas Carol: On Air” masterfully turns the timeless Christmas classic into an audio format fit for 2020, bringing messages of holiday cheer and the denouncement of selfishness at a time when the world needs it most.

The production begins with a group of friends gathering for the holidays, as they cannot go home for Christmas to see their families. The group opens a copy of “A Christmas Carol” to read, reenacting it aloud for each other.

From then on, the show tracks Charles Dickens’ original plot, which follows old, wealthy Ebenezer Scrooge, played by James Carpenter, along a journey of self-discovery. Three ghosts visit Scrooge on Christmas Eve, forcing him to recount what exactly made him the bitter, Christmas-hating man he is in hopes of changing him for the better. While we can only hear the actors because of the audio format, their voices are accompanied by picturesque depictions of Scrooge’s house and other settings, beautifully placing viewers at the scene. 

The ACT does a fantastic job of keeping this old story fresh, thanks to its stellar cast. Carpenter, in particular, excels in his portrayal of Scrooge. Since this is his 14th year as the character, this comes as no surprise; however, it is his consistency that guides the rest of the cast to success. Additionally, Carpenter’s interactions with the ghost of Jacob Marley, played by Zahan Mehta, are remarkably unsettling and goosebump-worthy; Mehta’s striking croaky voice makes their brief interaction the most memorable.

In every sense, the dialogue between the actors is immensely natural. The quality is not negatively impacted by it being an online recording, which maintains the connection between the actors and the story’s impact that would exist in a live show. 

Added audio effects, such as the clinking of coins, the ringing of bells and the thrashing of chains, only enhance the already enchanting story. The audio remains the same as if it were taken from the yearly stage production, with no lapse in quality because of the virtual format. The show also features notable musical scoring and accompaniment, especially with the euphonious reappearing Christmas carolers who bring delightfully pleasing songs to every scene they’re in. 

Above all else, this production does its best to make sure everyone — especially young children — are engaged in the performance, even with the lack of a visual component. With a themed downloadable activity book, children are given instructions throughout the show to follow along. Whether the instructions say to crinkle paper balls and throw them at each other when a snowball fight occurs or to make spooky noises when the ghosts appear, the interactive feature allows the show to take place within viewers’ own homes. 

This makes it an excellent opportunity for young children, who ordinarily wouldn’t be able to sit through a two-hour show without getting distracted. In this way, even without a live performance, “A Christmas Carol: On Air” may be even more effective at bringing the holiday spirit to families who are now able to watch the show in their own homes and become active participants in Scrooge’s journey. 

Although nothing is the same this year, carrying on the Christmas spirit through “The Christmas Carol: On Air” helps retain a sense of normalcy for audiences, delightfully bringing holiday cheer to all who listen. While one can only hope that the virtual format won’t be necessary for the years to come, the ACT’s production is undoubtedly a successful one. 

“A Christmas Carol: On Air” is available for on-demand listening through Dec. 31.

Contact Caitlin Keller at [email protected]. Tweet her at @caitlinkeller20.