Among my prejudices is that I’m an unabashed supporter of the Great Lakes Theater’s production of “A Christmas Carol”. For over twenty years, this “war horse” of a play piece has entertained and delighted audiences at Playhouse Square’s Ohio Theater. The show was adapted and initially directed by Gerald Freedman, who was the Artistic Director at the time. Since then, “A Christmas Carol” has remained a mainstay of the holidays in Cleveland.
The structure is that the Cleaveland family in London are celebrating Christmas Eve with a reading of the Charles Dickens classic. Their butler, the apparently cranky Samuels, is to become Ebenezer Scrooge. Other family members as well assume roles in the Dickens story. The Great Lakes Theater production is a comfortable as any Christmas tradition. It is familiar, and it is partly that familiarity that gives pleasure. Of course, the original production has not only lasted, but endured.
In this year’s production, Sara Bruner has staged the show with much of the original blocking intact. This respectful nod to Freedman’s direction is admirable. On opening night, audience members, both young and adult were fascinated with the intricate moving set pieces that first formed Scrooges’ office, later his bedroom, and a street in London. They enjoyed the hearing the atmospheric carols, both familiar and unfamiliar sung by the cast.
When Lynn Robert Berg first appeared as Marley in chains, the audience was riveted to the production. Aled Davies’ Scrooge is not afraid to play this scene for laughs as well, running from the Ghost of Marley. The blending of light, mist effects, and beautifully executed sound complete this scene and make it beautiful.
The original scenic designs by John Ezell and later Gene Emerson Friedman effectively evoke young Scrooge at school, then as an apprentice with the festive merchant Fezzywig, and finally his frustrated romance with Belle. Bennett Palmer as adolescent Scrooge and Laura Welsh Berg give this sequence potent drama.
After intermission, the Ghost of Christmas present reminds us that Dickens’ London was not all delights. The sailors, miners, and unfortunate children, represented by “Ignorance and “Want” appeal to the social conscience of Dickens era, and our own.When Christmas Future shows Ebenezer his house staff stealing the curtains from his death bed, and his shirt from his dead body, the audience gasped.
But of course, as we know, starting from “Marley was dead” “A Christmas Carol” ends happily. Scrooge is transformed into a generous soul, and “Tiny Tim did not die.” At the finale, the cast sing, the snow falls, and everyone goes home more infused with the holiday spirit.
The show’s children performers are among the best I’ve seen over the decades. Paul Hurley is an especially gregarious Nephew Fred and Darryl Lewis a lighfooted Feziwig. They and the rest of the cast appear in different roles. It reminds the audience that this is a theatrical experience, and it makes the show look even bigger than it is. If this “Christmas Carol” has a weakness, it is Neil Bookshire as Bob Cratchit. The scenes at the Cratchit house are thin because Bookshire does not project a sense of honesty in them. He seems like an actor acting goofy with the family but fares better as the put-upon employee cowering from Scrooge.
This is a small quibble for a landmark production. If you have children, grandchildren or even neighbors, get them to the theater. “A Christmas Carol” runs through Dec. 23. Truly, all seats at The Ohio Theater are good ones for this show. It was designed and staged for the space.