By Ruth Ross
Let’s do the numbers: Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol 175 years ago. The Chatham Players are celebrating their 97th season. The troupe has performed the Philip William McKinley and Suzanne Buhrer musical version of Dickens’ classic Christmas/ghost story for 30 years—the first 10 annually, the next 20 biannually. Thirteen members of this year’s large cast have performed in A Christmas Carol before—one in the very first. And this is the tenth time I have reviewed the production.
Nevertheless, the Chatham Players’ version of this old chestnut is one of the pleasures of the holiday season. Oh, the actors may change, the set might be a bit different and the levels of talent may vary, but the present production preserves the Tale’s haunted atmosphere complete with four ghosts, comments about gross materialism, scenes of abject poverty and the general nastiness of Victorian London, making the tale feel unfortunately appropriate for the 21st century.
Using Dickens’ own words and those of the tale, McKinley and Buhrer have fashioned a tale for the ages. Chip Prestera and Alan Semok return as Charles Dickens and Ebenezer Scrooge, respectively, in performances so fresh as to make us think this is the first time they’ve played the roles. Prestera’s avuncular Dickens steadily guides the story of the haunted miser along, drawing connections between his work of fiction and his own life—and sometimes inserting himself into the action. Semok’s twisted face (left) conveys the close-minded penury of Scrooge as he grimaces and frowns; he’s so disagreeable that his conversion at the end, when he kicks up his heels with glee at discovering his love of humankind, is all the sweeter. He’s especially nasty as he contemplates “The Jingle of Money” in his strongbox, fingering the coins and letting them drop just to hear the lovely sound.
The 25-member cast consists of actors of all ages. Christina Eliades (right) is magical as the Ghost of Christmas Past, sprinkling fairy dust and using her lovely voice to lead Scrooge through his sad and difficult past. As the Ghost of Christmas Present, Will Carey is so hearty and bountiful that he shames Scrooge into feeling bad at witnessing the Cratchits’ pitiful holiday feast. And Luke Williams as the Ghost of Christmas Future is scary and imposing—even though he he speaks nary a word.
Joëlle Bochner is a kind, long-suffering Mrs. Dickens; Jody Ebert an appropriately spectral Marley, whose exhortation to Scrooge to change his ways sets the entire haunting into action; Ken Magos a grasping undertaker; Adelaide Prekopa a winsome Belle, Scrooge’s ex-fiancée; Michael Barthel Scrooge’s eternally upbeat nephew Fred; Scott Baird earnest Bob Cratchit (left, with Zoe Davies, Owen Finnerty and Parker Ebert); and Michelle Finnerty his loving spouse. The latter two break hearts singing “If I Could Hold You in My Arms,” lamenting the death of Tiny Tim (played with poise by young Owen Finnerty—a chip off the old block of his talented mother).
Rounding out the principals are Howard Fischer and Andrea Thibodeau as Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig (right), the very embodiments of the Christmas Spirit who ebulliently exhort the partygoers to “Dance with Your Dumpling.” Leslie Gayle Williams, Will Carey and Andrea Thibodeau join Magos to salivate over the belongings they’ve pilfered from the departed Scrooge.
Once again, Jeffrey Fiorello firmly maintains the performance’s stead as he moves many bodies around a small space fluidly and without any collisions. Jack Bender’s orchestra supply able accompaniment to singers without overpowering the smaller voices of the little ones. Roy Pancirov’s set design evokes a mid-nineteenth century London street scene, with mullioned windows and stone facades, Richard Hennessy’s lighting adds atmosphere and Frances Harrison’s lavish costumes really give a sense of time and place.
Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol more as a ghost story and social criticism than as a holiday entertainment; he meant it to serve as a warning to the citizenry of Industrial Revolution England that they should not forget the poor and downtrodden in their quest for money. This means that there are some scary events and effects that might frighten very young children but would exhilarate those age eight and up who often love to be scared. (Above: Alexia Davies, Michelle Finnerty, Parker Ebert, Owen Finnerty, Zoe Davies and Scott Baird; back: Will Carey and Alan Semok)
For this 30th anniversary production, the Chatham Players haven’t been as niggardly as Scrooge. Artistically and creatively, they present a production as fresh as the first one I saw in 2000. It’s a real theatrical bonbon perfect for the Christmas holidays. So, if you’ve never seen this show—even if you’ve gone numerous times—call the box office for tickets before they’re sold out! (Right) Magos, Williams, Carey and Thibodeau)
A Christmas Carol will be performed by the Chatham Players at the Chatham Playhouse, 23 N. Passaic Avenue, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday afternoons at 3 p.m. through December 23. For information and tickets call the box office at (973) 635-7363 or visit www.chathamplayers.org online.