It’s a tale everyone knows. Since Charles Dickens published “A Christmas Carol” in 1843, the journey of Ebenezer Scrooge from miser to mensch has seen more adaptations than Marley wears chains. In modern times, Patrick Stewart, Bill Murray, the Muppets — and, my favorite, Scrooge McDuck — all portrayed the famous skinflint.
Now Richmond Shakespeare and Henley Street Theatre are taking their turn.
When “A Christmas Carol” was written, England was picking up the yuletide traditions it had eschewed in more Puritanical times. With his novella, Dickens helped redefine the holiday as one of gaiety and celebration.
Adapted by local playwright Bo Wilson, “Mr. Dickens’ Christmas Carol” begins with the novelist arguing with a publisher about his next work. The publisher wants to cash in on Christmas and Dickens is appalled at the idea of profiting from the holiday. While this starts to get tedious, the Spirits of Past, Present and Future descend on Dickens, inspiring him to write a tale that will celebrate the season and encourage its readers to help their fellow man.
At the Grace Street Theater, director Gary C. Hopper and his production team have constructed a show that’s high on stagecraft and clever in its execution. Working double-time, Andrew Hamm ably jumps between playing both Scrooge and Dickens, and character actor Joe Pabst is delightfully funny in a number of roles, including the Spirit of the Past. Rebecca Anne Muhleman is appropriately angelic as the slightly ditzy Spirit of the Present, and Jeff Clevenger rounds out the cast as the Spirit of the Future and a handful of Dickensian creations.
In adapting Dickens, Wilson — who makes a cameo in the portrait above Scrooge’s mantel — has distilled the story’s essence, excising some of its maudlin elements. Though discussed, the pitiful and cloying Tiny Tim thankfully is mentioned but not portrayed by the actors onstage.
Through echoes, smoke and other effects, sound designer Joey Luck, lighting designer Michael Jarett and set designer Joshua Bennett have colluded to create an otherworldly atmosphere. They remind us that, although Dickens’ tale leads to joy and redemption, it first portrays death and despair. Most of the time, Tennessee Dixon’s digital projections behind the performers enhance the action, but the animation depicting the repulsive children Ignorance and Want is just plain weird.
“Mr. Dickens’ Christmas Carol” is a loyal and refreshing take on the classic Victorian novella, and breezes by in 80 minutes. The only problem with the show is that the tale has been told so many times most people know it by heart. But to say “Bah! Humbug!” to “Mr. Dickens’ Christmas Carol” only because it’s familiar, you’d have to be a real Scrooge. S
Richmond Shakespeare and Henley Street Theatre’s “Mr. Dickens’ Christmas Carol” runs through Dec. 21 at Grace Street Theater, 934 W. Grace St. Visit henleystreettheatre.org or call 340-0115.