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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/

‘A Christmas Carol’ a Gorgeous Re-birthing of the Dickens Treasure, on Broadway, Starring Campbell Scott, Andrea Martin, LaChanze

The Cast, A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens, Jack Thorne, Matthew Warchus

The Cast of ‘A Christmas Carol,’ by Charles Dickens, adapted by Jack Thorne, directed by Matthew Warchus (Joan Marcus)

If you go to the Lyceum Theatre this holiday season, you will experience a haven of love filled with joy, good will and lots of treats (clementines and Tate’s chocolate chip miniatures passed out to the hungry audience right before the performance). What an exceptional re-vitalization of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol this production is.

The uplifting classic about the human ability to change one’s character from grasping restriction to one of generosity and love is one we need to revisit as often as possible in this time of political divisiveness and “un-newsworthy” acts of cruelty, malice and social ill will. The production is a subtle call to arms, a reminder of our choices. If we must reveal traits, why not manifest the spiritual attributes of goodness and kindness to energize our minds and hearts toward the positive. Bah Humbug with negativity! The glass should and must be half-full and eventually, it just might be overflowing. All things are possible to those who believe.

hris Hoch, Campbell Scott, A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens, Jack Thorne, Matthew Warchus

(L to R): Chris Hoch, Campbell Scott in ‘A Christmas Carol,’ by Charles Dickens, adapted by Jack Thorne, directed by Matthew Warchus (Joan Marcus)

Mind you this idea is never “preached” in this fabulous, sonorous production. But these themes are so infused by the characters, the story-line, the lyrically rendered traditional Christmas carols that waft in and out between bits and pieces of choral story telling, we are ever-so-gently wrapped in their meanings like a glorious present which we are encouraged to “pass on to others.” For those who see the production, and you must to fully appreciate this novel conception of a seasonal delight, you will understand how “pass it on to others, pass it forward,” becomes a prominent and sage aphorism, especially in Act II.

Campbell Scott, Dashiell Eaves, A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens, Jack Thorne, Matthew Warchus

(L to R): Campbell Scott, Dashielle Eaves, ‘A Christmas Carol,’ by Charles Dickens, adapted by Jack Thorne, directed by Matthew Warchus (Joan Marcus)

The production which was first presented in London at The Old Vic is currently in its third season there. It is understandable why it is a smash favorite. Will it return next year in New York City as it most likely will in London? Please! Adapted by Jack Thorne with an intriguing design, tenor and texture by a laudatory creative team, the craggy penurious, scoundrel Scrooge portrayed with power and emotional range by Campbell Scott has rarely been given such a send-off.

From costumes to staging to lighting and sound, this is a spiritual manifestation of dreams and possibilities which spark one’s imagination and send chills down our spines. From the first appearance of Jacob Marley dragging chains and bondages up from infernal regions and recriminations, to the subsequent howling of the winds and fog mists swirling diabolically to the deep tonal registers of darkness, this is indeed, first and last “A Ghost Story of Christmas,” Dickens very own handle characterizing his most famous work.

Andrea Martin, A Christmas Carol, Matthew Warchus, Jack Thorne, An Old Vic Production

Andrea Martin as the Ghost of Christmas Past, ‘A Christmas Carol,’by Charles Dickens, adapted by Jack Thorne,’ directed by Matthew Warchus (Joan Marcus)

Before we meet the protagonist, hear/see his story, the cast shares the cookie and fruit favors and sings in black long coats and top hats with bells ringing a melodic symphony of cheer, whose message clearly, beautifully resounds with grace and humor. Then Scrooge, the gruff, malcontent stomps into the scene in the appropriate Victorian dress of the counting house with white, disarrayed whiskers and shocked out hair. Campbell Scott steps into the soul of this misanthropist who despises Christmas and all it means until ghosts haunt him and he transforms into an innocent child as the light of wonder fills his spirit.

Campbell Scott, A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens, Jack Thorne, Matthew Warchus

Campbell Scott in, ‘A Christmas Carol,’ by Charles Dickens, adapted by Jack Thorne, directed by Matthew Warchus (Joan Marcus)

Scott takes a version of a caricature we’ve all come to appreciate and authenticates him as a live individual. I couldn’t help but equate him with some political caricatures of our nation with the hope that they, too, may change, come to life and fill out as generous recondite human beings. But Scott’s Scrooge has the chief driver of transformation propelling him along: guilt, shame and remorse and the inclination to apologize and want to be a better person. Others do love him despite himself and most probably have prayed and blessed him along his darkened way. Thus, he comes to the end of himself on a ghostly evening “the night before Christmas.”

Campbell Scott, A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens, Jack Thorne, Matthew Warchus

Campbell Scott in, ‘A Christmas Carol,’ by Charles Dickens, adapted by Jack Thorne, directed by Matthew Warchus (Joan Marcus)

When the Ghost of Christmas Past visits him (the illustrious, quaintly humorous and festively dressed Andrea Martin) we understand the reasons why Scrooge’s present is what it is and un-examined lump of coal which the ghosts put under intense heat and guilty pressure.

Nevertheless, Martin’s ghost reveals Scrooge’s younger days as he looks on poignantly amazed. The exuberance of his childhood, the longing not to be alone and the love are present. He loves Belle (the fine Sarah Hunt) but this love becomes bottled up in dreams of ambition to create a grand lifestyle for her. Of course these fade and became lost as Scrooge allows money to erect itself into an all-consuming devouring monstrosity; there is never enough; Scrooge is never rich enough for himself, though Belle would have married a man of her father’s station because she loves him and as he later finds out, still does love him.

Campbell Scott, LaChanze, A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens, Jack Thorne, Matthew Warchus

Campbell Scott, LaChanze in ‘A Christmas Carol,’ by Charles Dickens, adapted by Jack Thorne, directed by Matthew Warchus (Joan Marcus)

The Ghost of Christmas Present enters in the same clouded mist and the foreboding is heightened as LaChanze with ironic tone and admonition ringing throughout her carriage comes to visit. Her outfit is the same as the Ghost of Christmas Past in a festive floral pattern. But her distinguishing feature remains the sunglasses; interpret them as you will. LaChanze manages to be cool and witty in the part; the sunglasses are a nice touch.

With her visit Scott’s Scrooge has begun his subtle transformation. If you blink, you will miss the bends in the turning points of his change. Gradually, he loses his anger, sullenness, recalcitrance, emotional unkemptness and judgmental superiority. Not only does he go with her willingly, he shows his aptitude to learn about himself. After all, didn’t Marley warn him of three visitations for the sole reason of forestalling his friend and kindred mammonish spirit the horrors of Marley’s eternal damnation?

Campbell Scott, The Company, A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens, Jack Thorne, Matthew Warchus

Campbell Scott and The Company of ‘A Christmas Carol,’ by Charles Dickens, adapted by Jack Thorne, directed by Matthew Warchus (Joan Marcus)

The mood shifts of the ghostly hauntings are like whispers, acute and filled with mystery. The choral numbers of various carols enhance the ghostly visits. The lamps deck the ballustrade, festoon the stage and theater ceiling suspended by long and short chains. The design is just spectacularly suggestive of the time and place, themes of light and dark, redemption and damnation. Rob Howell (set and costume design) Hugh Vanstone (lighting design) Simon Baker (sound design) and Christopher Nightingale (composer/orchestrator/arranger) especially have secured Matthew Warchus’ vision of A Christmas Carol as floating through the realms between the material and ethereal worlds. It is this symbolic vision that gives credence to otherworldly consciousness as one of the unspoken ghosts that visits Scrooge and promotes his final transformation having come back from a deadened heart, mind and soul.

Campbell Scott, Charles Dickens, Jack Thorne, Matthew Warchus

Campbell Scott in ‘A Christmas Carol,’ by Charles Dickens, adapted by Jack Thorne, directed by Matthew Warchus (Joan Marcus)

Without giving too much away, the Second Act shines figuratively and manifestly as the light embraces Scrooge when the Ghost of Christmas Future, in a surprising twist, his sister Jess (Hannah Elless) notes what could be his future. Not exactly in keeping with the tenor and atmosphere of the Act One, nevertheless, Act Two emphasizes not the horrors and fear of a possibly doomed soul, but the joy, happiness and innocence of a reclaimed one.

Sarah Hunt, Campbell Scott, A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens, Jack Thorne, Matthew Warchus, an Old Vic Production

Sarah Hunt, Campbell Scott in ‘A Christmas Carol,’ by Charles Dickens, adapted by Jack Thorne, directed by Matthew Warchus (Joan Marcus)

If this is what it means to be “Born Again,” I’ll embrace it! Campbell Scott rebirths a nightmarish man into a lovely individual whose child-like wonder effuses love and generosity. His performance is moment to moment and the transformation is made complete in “the twinkling of an eye,” and “at the last trump!” This is his redemption through resurrection. And we adore Scrooge’s happiness and good will and find ourselves laughing and crying at his exuberance. Somewhere tucked in the background did I hear “O Holy Night” at these bright, shining moments? Perhaps.

Andrea Martin, LaChanze, Campbell Scott, Rachel Prather, A Christmas Carol, Broadway, Charles Dickens, Jack Thorne, Matthew Warchus

(background L to R:) Andrea Martin, LaChanze, Rachel Prather, (foreground) Campbell Scott, ‘A Christmas Carol,’ by Charles Dickens, adapted by Jack Thorne, directed by Matthew Warchus (Joan Marcus)

Matthew Warchus’ staging making use of the entire theater even up to the second balcony. This is captivating. And his involvement of the audience making this experience wholly interactive is just grand. I adored the themes: the reigning/snowing down of blessings on the audience, the abundance and prosperity offered by Scrooge’s resurrected spirit that the audience gets to pass along as part of the festivities and much, much more.

I daresay, perhaps agnostics and atheists will approve of this version because it is heartfelt, human and doesn’t have a whiff of sanctimonious clap trap or religious institutionalism anywhere near it. And as for the commercialism of Christmas? The production explodes it at the first appearance of the cast in top hats and Victorian long coats. Thank goodness. Indeed, Thorne, Warchus and the creative team reveal their profound understanding of Dickens’ themes elevating this “haunting” story to the classic it is. The production in breathtaking array exemplifies why A Christmas Carol will resonate always.

See this for the spectacular interactive staging, lighting design, director’s vision, spiritual beauty, acting, Campbell Scott’s Scrooge-transformation, fabulously interwoven-in-the-narrative Christmas carols sung and played like you’ve never experienced before. And see it for the mysterious, otherworldly enchantments and too much to repeat here, not the least of which are the clementines. With special kudos to those not mentioned before: Lizzi Gee (movement) Howard Joines (music coordinator) Campbel Young Assoiates (wigs, hair, make-up design) Michael Gacetta.

A Christmas Carol runs at the Lyceum Theatre (149 West 45th Street) with one intermission. For tickets and times to this must see LIMITED ENGAGEMENT, CLICK HERE.  You will be happy you did.

 

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