Review: "A Christmas Carol" at the Grand Theatre, Spriet Stage

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Joseph Szekeres

  • Chief Toronto Critic

This final preview production was quite regal looking at first glance. Congratulations to the Grand and this company who are reported to be the first world wide to cast a female Scrooge, but underneath there’s an opportunity to engage in further worthwhile discussion.

I believe the story is a familiar one to all of us, but here’s a quick recap.

It’s Christmas Eve, mid 1840s, in London, England. The miserly and mean Ebenezer Scrooge (Jan Alexandra Smith) is visited by the Spirit of Christmas Past (Jahlen Barnes), Spirit of Christmas Present (Blythe Wilson) and Spirit of Christmas Future (David Michael Moote) who help Ebenezer to understand the true meaning and spirit of the season and to keep its significance close to her heart year-round. Some iconic supporting characters include Bob Cratchit (Sean Arbuckle) and Tiny Tim (an adorable Owen Barteet). The story has been adapted by Dennis Garnhum and production based on his original direction.

Director Megan Watson has given an early Christmas gift to the city of London. While she has generously placed grand theatrical moments throughout the production, there are also touching scenes of generosity, humanity and forgiveness that played at my heart. I’ll do my best not to spoil too much of what happened during the plot at this final preview.

I loved the stylish ‘Les Miserables’ ish opening of videographer Jamie Nesbitt at the top of the show with the scrim and the projection of the month and year. What a wonderful idea to have Christopher Newton be the voice of Charles Dickens and the reason underlining why this story was written. His thundering voice reverberated throughout the beautiful auditorium of The Grand and magically transported me back to a literary time that has always fascinated me.

Ms. Watson has created a virtually spectacular technicolour production onstage and it is breathtaking to watch.  Every inch of the Grand’s stage is used for maximum effect. Kelly Wolf’s costume designs finely evoke the Victorian era right down to the tears and rips in some of the clothes, scarves, mitts and sweaters. Bonnie Beecher’s lighting designs exquisitely lit and set the tone and atmosphere of many of the scenes from the dimness of Scrooge’s home right up to the bright lighting of the Fezziwig party. (Spoiler alert here, sorry. I loved the falling snow in the auditorium on the audience at the curtain call.  It brought a tear to my eye and smile to my face because this is the beauty of the season for me).

For me, I really liked the singing of the Christmas carols as this almost certainly gets me in the spirit of the season.  The voices here are in first rate form under Mark Payne’s music and vocal direction. The only quibble I had are the songs from Mr. Barnes and Ms. Wilson as the Spirits of Christmas Past and Present. While they are fine performers and soloists indeed, I felt as if their songs in the process of redeeming Scrooge brought the pacing of the production to a rapid halt.

The twenty-two-member cast is a finely tuned ensemble of players. As the Spirit of Christmas Past is a reminder of Scrooge’s past, Mr. Barnes appropriately brings a childlike Ariel quality to his performance. Ms. Wilson subtly becomes that gentle guiding hand we all need at times in our lives. At the top of the second act where we can see The Present has aged and says, “My time is running short”, I felt quite sad as this statement was a stark reminder that we cannot stay young forever.

Steve Ross became a bon vivant and fatherly influence of a Mr. Fezziwig.  I was utterly astounded in watching David Michael Moote as the Spirit of Christmas Future. His use of puppetry and hydraulics while on stilts fascinated me as he towered over Scrooge. His mask of the skull was truly haunting and terrifying.

I especially liked Patrick Monaghan’s performance as Jacob Marley. Rather than having him appear briefly in Scrooge’s home to announce the arrival of the spirits, it was becoming to have Marley rise from his grave at his burial and follow Scrooge. The appearance of the ghosts playing tricks with Scrooge’s dimwitted maid Mrs. Dilber (Nikki Duval) was great fun to watch.

I did quite like Jan Alexandra’s performance as the central character. Her redemption scene at the end was emotionally moving as Scrooge promises to the Future Spirit that she will keep Christmas close to her heart for her life. As adults, I’m sure all of us feel like children on Christmas Eve hoping we will hear those sleigh bells while trying to contain our excitement of the morning and the day. Ms. Smith gleefully handles these emotions with such joy and passion that people around me (and including me) had big smiles on our faces.  Yes! Seeing Christmas with children’s eyes is magical.

I did manage to see Seana McKenna play Lear at Groundling in February and Julius Caesar at Stratford this summer. I also saw Martha Henry play Prospero. Lear, Prospero and (to an extent) Caesar are parental figures who work side by side with the other parent to raise and influence children/young/adults.  I had no issues whatsoever in recognizing this dynamic of strong male influences become strong female influences. I’m not certain this context works for ‘A Christmas Carol’, and I want to make it clear this is no reflection on Jan Alexandra Smith’s wonderful performance.

Final Comments: Yes, we’re told at the end of the story that Scrooge becomes another strong adult influence over Tiny Tim. Yes, the suffragette movement changed this patriarchal thinking but it was a time consuming process that did not occur overnight. From my historical understanding of the Victorian era, women were relegated to the role of raising and rearing children and never ventured outside and never owned businesses. Additionally, there is no other half in Scrooge’s life where she and another person can influence children and young adults. I am looking forward to hearing what others have to say about this

‘A Christmas Carol’ plays to December 23, 2018 at The Grand Theatre, London, Ontario. 471 Richmond Street. Tickets may be purchased online at www.grandtheatre.com or call the box office at (519) 672-8800.

Performance runs 2 hours and 10 minutes with one intermission.

Photo of Jan Alexandra Smith as Scrooge by Dahlia Katz.

Director: Megan Watson; Set Designer: Allan Stichbury; Composer: Jeremy Spencer; Sound Designer: Jim Neil; Vocal and Dialect Coach: Jane Gooderham; Choreographer: Kerry Gate; Skating Choreographer: Geoffrey Tyler; Stage Manager: Kelly Luft.