In ‘A Christmas Carol,’ Jefferson Mays is The Masterpiece

Jefferson Mays in A Christmas Carol (courtesy of A Christmas Carol Live)

Someone once said, “It is easier for a camel to go through an eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” Increased with golden toilets, their own airplanes and wanting for nothing, the rich don’t need to believe in God nor be accountable to anyone. Indeed in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol adapted by Jefferson Mays, Susan Lyons and Michael Arden, currently at the Nederlander Theatre, we recognize what it takes for a stingy, greedy, penurious rich man like Scrooge to transform into a generous, kind soul who demonstrates God’s love. Scrooge must be kidnapped by ghosts and taken on a spiritual journey toward a horrific ending. He must face the black night of the soul as death comes for him. If you’re familiar with Dickens’ story, you know the outcome. “Bah! Humbug!”

With Jefferson Mays in the driver’s seat of this truly heavenly Christmas Carol, directed by Michael Arden, running until 1st of January, we glory over Mays’ Scroogey ending. Employing magnificent performance skills honed to perfection, Mays brings to life Dickens’ popular story in a viscerally charged solo performance for the ages. The man of many faces, voices, gestures and personalities, Mays (Tony Award for I am my Own Wife) inhabits 50 or more characters to proclaim the message of goodness, love, joy and redemption in the true spirit of Christmas for audience members fortunate to catch him live this holiday season. He even portrays a cooking potato and enlivens the mist and fog that enters Scrooge’s chambers. Shriek!

Jefferson Mays in A Christmas Carol (courtesy of A Christmas Carol Live)

Conceived by Michael Arden and Dane Laffrey, the production is an acutely tailored phantasmagoria of delight, fear, fun, strangeness and the macabre on steroids. It flies on ghostly wings at the speed of light and sound without an intermission, then it ends in Mays’ virtuoso curtain call to a standing ovation. Though you swear there are heavenly hosts that accompany him during his bows, look again. Yes, during the production there were many individuals onstage taking part in this amazing interactive storytelling. But no. Only he stands grinning in the spotlight pleased that the audience was hushed and enthralled, and suspended in time, caught up with him in the ethereal web of make believe, that is too real to accept for all of its mortality in immortality.

With the streamlined Mays, Lyons, Arden adaptation, Dickens’ prose is steadfast, ironic, cryptic, paired down to an acute sensibility so that Mays vibrates his instrument to produce Scrooge, Marley, all the Cratchits, his nephew Fred, Scrooge’s sister, Fezziwig, the Christmas spirits, Londoners and other souls and beings with pointed, sonorous, gravelly, delicate, squeaky, smooth, guttural vocal modulations. In other instances with a mere look, smile, shake of the head, shrug of the shoulders or flip of the hand, we see each member of the Cratchit family sitting around the dinner table. The scene is the centerpiece of Mays’ wit and whimsy assisted by no special effects because he IS the master of the “stuff” of kinetic presentation.

Jefferson Mays in A Christmas Carol (courtesy of A Christmas Carol Live)

All these lovely and frightening individuals are authentically realized, as Mays fuses various genders, ages, mortals and immortals seamlessly with heartfelt, poignant and unmistakable generosity, a veritable melting pot of democracy. To say that Mays pours out every cell of his being to clarify Dickens’ message to update it for our time, is an understatement. With humanity he filters through his own soul the two most mortal of sins (a denial of God’s commands to love Him and love thy neighbors). Effecting this, Mays materializes and elucidates the stark, craven distinctions between the haves and have nots. Even Dickens, who railed at the predation of the owner class upon the worker class, shoved into debtors prisons and workhouses, would be proud to see what his words have wrought in Mays’ prophetic and brilliant enactments.

Clearly, this Carol slams the shameful indecency flying about the heads of grasping, rich owners like Scrooge and Marley whose greedy, hardened hearts perpetuate the impoverishment of workers in order to squeeze obscene profits for themselves because “they can,” for no one in the complicit government stops them.

But I have gotten ahead of myself. This production is without sentimentality, chiefly because with bounteous affection, Mays adheres to Dickens’ renderings. He allows the richness of Dickens’ words to organically inspire his every emotion, bringing a new understanding to what Dickens has achieved and revealing why this work is timeless.

The script is similar to the one that Dickens toured and enlivened himself with presentation foremost in his mind. The plot points are essentially the same, however, the creative team transfigures Dickens’ work, heightening it to a dimensional reality that is beyond our tangible realm. Dane Laffrey (scenic and costume design) Ben Stanton (lighting design) Joshua D. Reid (sound design) Lucy MacKinnon (production design) Cookie Jordan (hair, wig & makeup design), attend to details, carving them from Dickens’ language, lifting our felt experience to a transcendence that is breathtaking. Mays and the creative team’s efforts perfectly complement each other to reveal the characters like never before.

Jefferson Mays in A Christmas Carol (courtesy of A Christmas Carol Live)

First, this version of A Christmas Carol is about darkness. Ebenezer Scrooge and his kindred partner in spiritual crime Marley, are souls without light. The moment the audience members enter, the show has begun. It is a viewing of a casket on a bier, surrounded by total stygian darkness, if not for the inky-greenish, backlit glow, eerily portending the supernatural after the irrevocable end to Marley’s mortal flesh. Then with a shock and thunderous clap, darkness and fear descend, snuffing out the light everywhere.

The evening I was present in the audience, there were nervous titters of laughing fear and what seemed an interminable wait which increased our tension. Then one, lone candle flickered in the palpable darkness, lit by “The Mourner” draped in black Victorian dress with top hat. Jefferson Mays, the narrator! Loudly, Mays proclaims the immutable fact that “Jacob Marley was dead,” to a community of mortals who, like Scrooge, don’t believe death will come for them. But then neither did Marley. The joke is a blasphemy to those who believe in money and no God.

Jefferson Mays in A Christmas Carol (courtesy of A Christmas Carol Live)

Well, mystery solved. We know that it is Marley who is in the coffin. But what was that horrifying loud clap like a door closing on light forever? As Mays makes his way across the stage to light another candle which sends a weak glow through the caliginous room, we are rapt, mesmerized by the creative team’s ingenuity to fill us with an anticipated dread. It comes as Mays’ narrator begins the tale of the man in the coffin and the frightening events that happen to his partner Scrooge on this night, Christmas eve, a night signifying that grace is available even to a man of wicked greed like Scrooge, who believes Christmas (God’s love and gift of redemption) is a “Bah! Humbug!” fiction.

There is no end to the shocks erupting throughout this spectral and darkly fabulous presentation. The frightening effects and accompanying sounds startle and thrill. I was amazed by the amorphous, yet defined steam engine pealing out whistles and chugging puffs of smoke; in the twinkling of an eye present, then vanished as Dane Laffrey’s scenic design, Ben Stanton’s lighting design, Joshua D. Reid’s sound design and Lucy Mackinnon’s production design evoked the setting of a Victorian London. In the drapes and accoutrements of Scrooge’s bedroom to the “horn of plenty” abundance of the the groaning table of Christmas Present, everywhere on stage and with that locomotive, the audience is there “back in the day,” 150 years before. Calling me to attention, the immediacy alerted my expectations. I barely had time to wonder what other ghostly remnants of the past like that steam engine would present the shifting atmospheres of time and place in present, past and future Christmases, when Mays was in his states of becoming. From crotchety Scrooge to cheery nephew Fred to beloved, Bob Cratchit, all three sprung into spontaneous interaction.

Throughout, I heard, maybe for the first time, Dickens’ precise word craftsmanship. For example in this script Dickens strings together acute descriptors of Scrooge’s covetousness-squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, etc., and ends with an incalculably gobsmacking simile that identifies the man’s state of being as a result of covetousness: “Scrooge was as solitary as an oyster.” I’ve always appreciated Dickens’ genius. This production vaulted him to higher heights in my writerly estimation.

Jefferson Mays in A Christmas Carol (courtesy of A Christmas Carol Live)

The thing is Mays is hyper aware of every word and he evokes its meaning with an appreciation of Dickens’ style, humor and ironies. And he wants us to catch these gems and have fun with them as he does. His performance is so immediate and embracing it is impossible to “intellectualize.” You just have to watch and react to whatever laugh comes up or be afraid of whatever fearful demon or entity comes next. I thought that the projected, darkness-filled children, one of which was pronounced to be “doom,” were particularly galling. With the darkness as it moves into the light-filled joy, Mays in collaboration with Arden and the production designers, creates a beloved tribute to Dickens’ greatness.

The emotions and reactions conveyed by various scenes are too many to enumerate. A few include Mays’ terrible infusion of Marley’s spirit, more chilling than Hamlet’s father for there is no surcease in his torment in a purgatory. Marley’s mortal sins have brought him to his irrevocable destination and he cries to be heard and listened to. That he visits Scrooge to reveal there are consequences in an afterlife where there is a God and where damnation is of one’s own making is grace enough bestowed on his partner in crime. Thus, Scrooge is taken up short at this visitation of one as godless and unbelieving as he. Mays’ seamless segues between Scrooge and Marley are incredible.

Likewise, as mentioned, the Cratchit scene is just superbly riotous. I found the wondrous Christmas Present segment one of joy, happiness, abundance and light. It is sandwiched between the previous Christmas Past scene of lugubriousness, and the coming gloom of Christmas Future’s portentous finality.

Of course for all of us, whether young or old, it’s memento mori another theme of this spectacular production. The incarnation of Death (Danny Gardner) when the creative team pulls out all stops is terrifying. It is enough to appall the most avuncular, sweet, scientific atheist who swears god is a fiction for frightened children. No wonder the irascible incorrigible goes down on his knees against such a being.

No more need be said except this production is a shining light, at a time when all around are dark hearts waiting to devour goodness and mercy because they can’t distinguish it from the light of joy the opposite to be “Bah Humbug!” fictions. Once live captured streaming two years ago, this live performance will most probably not be seen again, unless there is a return of grace in years to come. That’s why you should see it now. Mays is amaysing! For tickets and times go to their website: https://www.achristmascarollive.com/tickets/

About caroleditosti

Carole Di Tosti, Ph.D. is an Entertainment Journalist, novelist, poet and playwright. Writing is my life. When I don't write I am desolate. Carole Di Tosti has over 1800 articles, reviews, sonnets and other online writings. Carole Di Tosti writes for Blogcritics.com, Theater Pizzazz and other New York theater websites. Carole Di Tost free-lanced for VERVE and wrote for Technorati for 2 years. Some of the articles are archived. Carole Di Tosti covers premiere film festivals in the NY area:: Tribeca FF, NYFF, DOC NYC, Hamptons IFF, NYJewish FF, Athena FF. She also covers SXSW film. Carole Di Tosti's novel 'Peregrine: The Ceremony of Power,' is being released in November-December. Her two-act plays 'Edgar,' 'The Painter on His Way to Work,' and 'Pandemics' in the process of being submitted for representation and production.

Posted on December 1, 2022, in Broadway, NYC Theater Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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