Review: A Unique and Beautiful Christmas Carol

by SUZANNE AND GREG ANGEO

Think about the greediest, most selfish person you know. Just how far below the surface would you have to dig to find any kindness or generosity? Could such a meanie be redeemed simply by seeing visions of his past, present, and future? Does he need the faith and help of those who still care, despite his wretched state?

Those questions, and more, are answered in Meadow Brook Theatre’s joyfully resplendent production of “A Christmas Carol.” In its 36th year at Meadow Brook, many of the cast and crew are long-time veterans of the show, reuniting to present what has become a beloved holiday tradition.

Although the story has been nearly ubiquitous this time of year ever since it was first published in 1843, “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens remains an important and culturally relevant work. The timeless themes explored in this tale – charity for the poor, the treatment of children, love of home and family, hope and forgiveness – have become a central part of the Christmas celebration, and beyond, for secular and religious folks alike.

Thomas D. Mahard offers a solidly two-dimensional performance as the pathologically greedy Scrooge. He comes off small, stiff, and weaselly, with a very interesting way of counting pound notes. If this miserly old man could reveal just a small glimpse of the person he once was long ago, a person who loved and had compassion, would it be easier to believe he could find redemption with the help of four ghostly companions? Or could the message be that there’s hope for everyone, no matter how nasty and shallow, as long as someone still living believes in him? Aside from pondering the metaphysical, it’s fun to watch Mahard interact with the other characters, even if we know what’s coming.

In the role of Fred, Scrooge’s relentlessly optimistic nephew, Dale White has a suitably pleasant and energetic demeanor, although, during a recent matinee performance, his voice sounded a little strained at times. Scrooge’s dear departed business partner, Jacob Marley (in a brief but impressive turn by Mark Rademacher), makes a dramatic entrance through a trap door, bound by heavy chains, accompanied by a riff of heavy metal music and a blast of smoke from the depths of you-know-where. He’s on a mission to save old Scrooge from a similar fate.

As the Spirit of Christmas Past, Sara Catheryn Wolf is a standout with her commanding voice and stage presence. She takes Scrooge on a journey to his past, where he sees the love he once had until he fell under the spell of money. Rademacher returns as the wise and jovial Spirit of Christmas Present, who shows Scrooge what he’s missing and how he needs to change.

Mysterious black umbrellas (one of many original touches throughout the show) herald the arrival of Brendan Michael Lindberg as the ominous and terrifying Spirit of Christmas Future. This spirit means business and no humbug.

More than half the cast are members of Actors Equity. Notable performances include Tobin Hissong as Bob Cratchit, Sara Kmiec as Fred’s wife, Chip DuFord as Fezziwig, and Tim Stone as young Scrooge. Multiple child actors perform each of their roles, including Ari Bigelman and Ethan Sharp taking turns as the ever-adorable Tiny Tim.

Gorgeous costumes by Mary Pettinato lend the perfect period touch. Peter Hicks has created amazingly versatile rotating sets that, combined with lighting by Reid Johnson, transport you to early 19th-century London.

Terry Carpenter’s direction is supple and sure-footed; he’s been involved with the show at Meadow Brook for most of its 36 years as either director or stage manager. He’s also working with great material. The original adaptation and staging by Charles Nolte, a 30-year veteran of Meadow Brook, is graced with wit and affection. There are many surprises, including a fiddler (huzzah!), some lively dance numbers and general merrymaking that lend a festive sparkle. Other creative touches include the original use of music, a cappella vocals, and changes in the pace of dialogue.

Be sure to arrive at least 30 minutes before curtain so you can catch the a cappella choral group (under the direction of CT Hollis with arrangements by Caitlin Burke). They’re all dressed to the nines in period costumes, singing traditional Christmas carols and engaging the audience. When the curtain rises, they merge with their fellow Londoners onstage in a seamless transition to begin the play.

Meadow Brook Theatre’s “A Christmas Carol” runs now through December 24. Tickets range from $28 to $43 and can be purchased by calling 248-377-3300 or visiting mbtheatre.com Meadow Brook Theatre is located at Wilson Hall on the campus of Oakland University, 378 Meadow Brook Rd in Rochester Hills.