Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol has always been a bizarre, Yule-scented mélange of art and faith and commerce. A Victorian Christmas yarn about a miser who discovers the reason for the season with the help of various ghosts and an angelic disabled child, it was written to garner sympathy for poor children and to lift its author out of debt. In that it succeeded only partially – it sold well, but Dickens had gone in for some very expensive bindings.
Its current Broadway incarnation, adapted by Jack Thorne, directed by Matthew Warchus and embellished with a dozen carols, is as gleaming as a Christmas goose. Which is to say, it’s no turkey. But in readying the play for Broadway, Thorne has echoed his Harry Potter and the Cursed Child themes – the tension between fathers and sons, the ways we misunderstand the people we love – and borrowed a bit from Dickens’s own life, turning a weird ghost story into a thin psychological allegory about a man whose daddy didn’t love him enough.
Still you would need to have a galloping case of the humbugs to dislike the show, which begins on a bare stage, lit with scores of lanterns, as musicians chime carols and actors trawl the aisles, flinging oranges and bags of cookies into the crowd. One hundred and forty-nine dollars, the cost of an orchestra seat, could buy a lot of cookies and London audiences were treated to mince pies, but the snacks nevertheless feel like a gift and a thoughtful one — the actors even hand out wax paper bags for your peels. As the show begins, the gifts keep coming. The set and costume designer, Rob Howell, has secreted surprises throughout the stage floor and more amazements wait in the balcony and the wings. (It would seem Scrooge-like to say much more, but did you know they now make a theatrical snow that actually feels wet and cold? Oh and some of the costumes are another surprise, a bad one.)
The adaptation is about what you would expect of Thorne – some story theater, some sentiment, a few genuinely moving moments. Campbell Scott, a likable actor now moving from nebbishes to heels, stars as the parsimonious Scrooge. His father, George C Scott, played the same role in a beloved television adaptation, and the younger Scott’s interpretation is more contained, less blustery, in its way quite as persuasive. Andrea Martin plays the childlike Ghost of Christmas Past with LaChanze as the imperious (and blind? and possibly Jamaican?) Ghost of Christmas Present.
In this version two boys with cerebral palsy alternate in the role of Tiny Tim. At the performance I attended it was Sebastian Ortiz, unspeakably adorable. If I was troubled by the sight of a disabled child of color brought onstage to enable a wealthy white character’s spiritual growth, I was also too busy wiping away tears to give it my full attention.
Despite its insipid psychology and some apparent anxiety about how to turn a short story into a full evening – so many admittedly beautiful songs – A Christmas Carol is a pleasant evening and easily digestible. After all, it advocates not for revolution or the more equitable distribution of wealth, but for a compassionate capitalism, with cookies for all. So come all ye faithful. Come hungry.