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‘Tis the season when audiences reliably and enthusiastically flock to productions of A Christmas Carol. After the last season’s dark houses, this 150-year-old story seems to be more welcome and timeless than ever.
A tale of two Christmas carols
Charles Dickens's tale of a transformative Christmas Eve begins in the ice-cold accounting office of Ebenezer Scrooge, a man so frosty he “carried his own low temperature always about with him.” His long-suffering clerk Bob Cratchit is ready to celebrate Christmas Day (the sole, grudgingly given annual holiday) as Scrooge’s avuncular nephew Fred bounds in to extend an annual unrequited invitation for Scrooge to attend his holiday supper.
Fred’s warm-hearted gesture is rendered in vain, as usual, and Scrooge leaves to spend Christmas Eve alone in his gloomy rooms. As he enters, his brass door knocker transforms into the face of former partner Jacob Marley, dead “seven years ago this very night.” Scrooge is then visited by three spirits—Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Yet to Come—who take him on nocturnal journeys. When he awakes on Christmas morning, the unforgivable curmudgeon is a new man.
Over its lifetime, this Dickens classic has inspired multiple interpretations from the author’s own staged readings to radio productions to many stage versions. These two regional productions appeal in quite different ways.
Hedgerow Theatre's production
This intimate Rose Valley gem sits in an enveloping wooded dell, with 100-seats inside a former 19th century grist mill, the perfect locale for Dickens's 19th century tale. Penelope Reed, the theater’s emeritus artistic director, has staged a classic adaptation by playwright Nagle Jackson that has been widely produced at major American regional theaters since its 1977 debut and a Hedgerow holiday staple for 28 years.
The small stage is curtained with elegant red velvet lit by dappled light. The audience sits on cushioned benches surrounded by the mill’s craggy stone walls. After a welcome and a request for support, the play begins as two somewhat ghostly carolers sing from wooden balconies, and the curtain opens to reveal the building’s beautiful back wall, a perfect frame for the production.
It’s clear from the start that the cast and director are enamored of this tradition and this play. The company is filled with both newcomers and alums of Hedgerow classes or productions, including 15 adults and a rotating 20-member youth company. The production has a lovely handmade feel, smoothly mixing professional actors with community members and children, which Reed’s direction and staging accomplish admirably.
Cast members here (with few exceptions) play multiple roles, and the quality of the performances does vary widely. Notable were Cassandra Alexander (Belle and Mrs. Fred), Zoran Kovcic (Fezziwig and others, and is the designer of the hardworking set), and Brian McCann as Scrooge.
McCann, a Philadelphia actor born in Delaware, chose to play the character (rarely off the stage) in a deft, presentational style that closely matches the flourishes, embellishments, and elevated language of Dickens's original text. It’s a highly skilled, unusual, and most interesting performance that, while based in solid characterization, also references the florid period acting style of the era when the work was written.
Jackson's adaptation employs both dialogue and narration, handled here by three actors. The script is almost entirely composed of Dickens's words and follows the author’s caveat that this is not a saccharine tale but rather “a ghostly little book.” If there was dialogue or (carefully constructed) description that did not come from the famous novella, I couldn’t find it. It was warming to be enfolded by this classic text, and throughout, Reed employs traditional carols like “God Rest Ye,” “In the Bleak Midwinter,” and “Silent Night,” sung cleanly as they might have been in Dickens's time.
The audience was carefully screened for proof of vaccination, serenaded by a live pre-show lobby that morphs into a soundtrack. The house was not fully sold to accommodate distancing, and there are special events (indoors and outside) throughout the run. Sitting inside an 1840s building watching this 1843 tale is (in the words of Hedgerow artistic director Marcie Bramucci) “a holiday gift indeed.”
In terms of ambiance, this expansive modern theater complex in Malvern is Hedgerow’s exact opposite. People’s Light has mounted an adaptation on its contemporary Haas Stage that seeks to “recognize the immense impact of loss on the human heart.” Zak Berkman (writer, composer, and the theater’s producing director) infuses the production with music, informed by gratitude and brimming with hope.
Directed with verve and skill by David Bradley, here Dickens’s creation is winningly realized by a 19-member cast diverse in identities and age, many of whom also play instruments. Music is the heart of this production, and music supervisor Mitch Chakour effectively grounds the vibrant company with a string trio (guitar, violin, and the beautiful cello of conductor Justin Yoder).
Berkman frames the classic Victorian tale, opening and closing it in present times, meshing then and now. He intertwines well-known carols or folk tunes with his winning original music and weaves new dialogue among the tale’s original words. In the novella, the author often leaves the reader to draw their own conclusions, but Berkman expands the story’s bones, exploring and explicating both the narrative and emotional details that Dickens addresses only obliquely.
In this story-theater style production, where the actors play multiple parts, stagecraft constantly shifts to tell the tale, with morphing costumes (Marla Jurglanis), multiple-use set pieces (Paige Hathaway), evocative sound (Brent Hoyer), and lights (Dawn Chiang) that switch seamlessly from embracing to spooky.
In the contemporary sections, actors directly address the audience, and the entire company is excellent with strong singing and affecting scenes throughout. Charlie DelMarcelle functions as an expert guide through the production in which all actors (with one other exception) play multiple roles.
Also in a solo role is the masterful Ian Merrill Peakes as Ebenezer Scrooge in a powerhouse performance. Peakes necessarily sustains a style markedly different from the other performers, though it never seems out of place. He treads a straight dramatic line throughout the storytelling swirling around him, creating a credible and moving transformation from saturnine miser to joyous member of the community he has so long eschewed.
This show is slightly overwritten, its message sometimes too obvious: it could be easily carried by this ebullient cast. And there was a fundraising pitch at the end that somewhat dimmed the production’s light. Still, this is a worthy addition to the holiday canon, rendered especially meaningful by Ian Merrill Peakes’s memorable work.
The mantra of both shows is summed up by the People’s Light production: “Some things you have to see to believe. Some things you have to believe to see.”
What, When, Where
A Christmas Carol. By Charles Dickens, adapted by Nagle Jackson. Directed by Penelope Reed. $20-35. Through December 24, 2021, at Hedgerow Theatre, 64 Rose Valley Road, Rose Valley, PA. (610) 565-4211 or hedgerowtheatre.org.
A Christmas Carol. By Charles Dickens, adapted and with original music by Zak Berkman. Directed by David Bradley. $25-45; various discounts. Through January 2, 2022. Streamed performance available December 24-January 6; $25 or included with ticket purchase. People’s Light, 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern, PA. (610)-644-3500 or peopleslight.org.
For entry to both theaters, patrons are required to show proof of vaccination and ID or proof of negative Covid-19 tests within 72 hours. Masks must be worn inside both theaters; actors were unmasked. At People’s Light, Covid tests were offered as needed and entry and ticket pick-up were handled in small groups. Check each theater’s website for other specifics.
For Hedgerow Theatre's accessibility information, call (610) 565-4211. Hedgerow's Theater is wheelchair accessible, and the performance on Sunday, December 12 is a relaxed performance as well as audio-described. There will be a pre-performance sensory tour at 1:15pm on the day of the show.
For People's Light accessibility information, call (610) 644-3500. The theater is wheelchair accessible and offers audio-visual aids and open-caption performances. Relaxed performance on December 19.
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