The seasonal delight of Center Theatre Group’s “A Christmas Carol” performed at the Ahmanson Theatre made the cancellation of its remaining shows due to the pandemic that much more unfortunate. The smattering of lanterns and the dynamic interaction between set pieces and storyline deserved to be seen by many more theatre-lovers, and while Bradley Whitford’s portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge leaned more into the fantastically comical, it only made the experience more enjoyable.
Right away, the opening created an interactive and welcoming atmosphere. Childlike giddiness permeated the audience, with adults springing for souvenirs thrown from the stage and stretching their hands in the air for a chance at being acknowledged by the cast. The set, sound, and actors perfectly gelled to create the illusion of space, immersing us in Scrooge’s travels through time. The sound was rich and dramatic; the slam of a door would echo through the theatre, a shattering of glass would pierce the ear. My personal favorite was the vortex-like sound that signaled we traveled through Scrooge’s memories, as it really sold the mystical power of the ghosts and distanced us from the humanity of the actors. The stage was marked by four empty door frames, representing portals into different worlds, whether that be Scrooge’s office, home, or into a different era entirely. Funnily enough, each actor had a different method of opening and closing their imaginary doors. I anticipated which would take more liberties than others when opening and shutting them.
The use of light in the production was masterful. The lanterns above would beat as one heart and twinkle individually; sudden bursts outlined strong silhouettes, unsettling the audience when the darker figures like Marley and the Ghost of Christmas Future emerged. The chorus was implemented in very interesting ways; rather than relegating to the background, they actively played a role in telling the story with the lanterns they dutifully carried. When they emerged from the back of the stage with their lanterns, cloaked in black, they appeared to be moving through a dark wood. Their collective lights created an isolated, cave-like effect when Scrooge was at his lowest and a joyous glow when at his peak.
The way they had Whitford, the current Scrooge, interact with the phantoms of his past was unlike any performance I had seen of the play. Rather than observe his past as a third-party actor, Scrooge slipped effortlessly into the shoes of his past self, embodying the memory. Whitford took on the temperament of a child terrified of his father and a brother longing to spend Christmas with his ill sister before shifting to a scorned miser on the flip of a coin, making you hang on every line. The Ghost of Christmas Past, performed by Kate Burton, walked the line between youth and wisdom, knocking Scrooge down a peg despite her short stature. Her entrance was dazzling, with the great swinging lantern descending suddenly from above, carving a path of light through the audience. Even her costume, worn by the other ghosts, dipped into the fairytale-esque with their frills and trains of patchwork designs.
I admit, the Ghost of Christmas Present performed by Alex Newell remains my favorite performance of the night, but in all fairness, I believe the audience felt the same based on their reactions to her explosive presence and dominating voice. The accent given to the character was definitely a choice and not one I had ever seen before. However, their commitment to their character’s attitude as they grudgingly helped Scrooge realize his wrongs sold it in the end. Overall, they were electric on the stage, commanding attention with their silver-tongued lines and booming voice, whether they appeared solely beside Whitford or amongst multiple characters. Their character’s concealed eyes didn’t hinder their impact but rather drove home Scrooge’s unwillingness to see his wrongs as he walked through his present day.
I was also a huge fan of the choice to represent the Ghost of Christmas Future, or death, as a multitude of voices concealed by gauzy veils. The portrayal created an enveloping sense of anxiety that I think would have been lost had we solely focused on one ghostly figure as in past interpretations. Rather than being able to see them as one, you felt them all around you, haunting you as though you were Scrooge on stage.
When it came to the feast portion of the performance, after Scrooge finally turned a corner and became “good,” the California-centered jokes were a bit trite but maintained the lighthearted atmosphere that the audience came here for. The gaffs about Beverly Hills’s known cosmetic surgery obsession and the love of Whole Foods Still drew plenty of laughs from those in the theatre, thanks to Whitford’s confident delivery of the punchlines, making it easier to buy into the at times off-beat humor.
The highlight of the night for child and adult theatre-goers had to be the “snow” that sprinkled from the ceiling to cap off the dramatic ending. The simultaneous raising of the large prop bells strewn across the stage up until that point mirrored the heaviness lifted off of our chests at Scrooge’s revelation. The actors stationed around different places in the room expanded the story from the isolated stage to the entire theatre. They joyfully yelled from the balconies while dropping actual Brussel sprouts attached to parachutes from the highest seats, a delightful surprise. Scrooge’s nephew made his way onto the upper balcony, enhancing his bemused reaction to his uncle’s shy confession of love for him. As if he was in a home’s upper window, his nephew, played by Brandon Gill, yelled back his adoration for Scrooge, overjoyed at his sudden change of heart, making for a touching moment. His desperation to connect with his uncle Scrooge and undying enthusiasm was always a welcome addition on stage, but off of it, he didn’t lose any of his star power. Tiny Tim’s, or should I say Cade Robertson’s, ending lines were adorable, his delivery of the iconic “God bless us, everyone,” flawless, and it was rather late, so extra props are in order for his endurance onstage.
Lastly, the bell carol performed to honor the late Stephen Sondheim was touching and a spectacular way to come down from the giggly high that the audience was brought to by the snow-blanketed end.