OREM — Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol has proved to be a staple of the holiday season. At nearly 170 years old, this short novel has been adapted for the stage and screen hundreds of times. Though the 1843 novel was originally a response to the horrific working conditions for children, Dickens’s story remains relevant and accessible today due to it overarching themes of good will and charity.
Considering the story’s popularity, it is no surprise how A Christmas Carol has become an annual tradition at Hale Center Theatre Orem (HCTO), running over thirty performances in less than a month. This production is most likely one of their most successful titles of the season, and with good reason. By the end of the play, audiences can’t help but feel warm, cheerful, and full of the holiday spirit, but that doesn’t mean the production was without flaws.
The HCTO production of A Christmas Carol is billed as a musical, though only four of the musical numbers are original songs. These original songs, with music and lyrics by Cody Hale, are sung beautifully but are generally unnecessary; they don’t further the plot or reveal anything new about the characters and were not particularly noteworthy. On the other hand, traditional carols like “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “Joy to the World” were effective in establishing both the period and the mood.
Considering the small playing space at the HCTO, blocking and spacing become incredibly important in the storytelling. Director Jerry Elison did commendable work with a large cast, and found many opportunities to play to each side of the theatre. On occasion, however, sizeable parts of the audience were completely ignored for almost an entire scene at a time. The south side of the audience doesn’t see Scrooge’s face for almost all the first scene in his counting house, and then misses out again when Scrooge returned home. At other points, the eight person choir clutters up the small space, essentially becoming a large wall shielding the onstage action for parts of the audience.
The driving force among the actors was Chris H. Brower in his performance as the famous old miser, Ebenezer Scrooge. Brower’s energy and commitment in his role propels the play forward, and his comedic style and timing makes the audience feel like they’re in on his jokes. Brower’s transformation from penny-pincher to patron is believable, yet it still lacks something. From the beginning of the play, Brower’s Scrooge is already somewhat of a jokester, and many of his lines are read with a dry sarcasm that elicits laughter from the audience. He is undoubtedly a crotchety old business man, but he just wasn’t mean enough. Nevertheless, his transformation coaxes out all the many years of pent-up joy in his heart, and it is impossible not to smile and laugh along as Scrooge skips, larking about London, wishing everyone a Merry Christmas.
It seems that all the rest cast sings very well, and they do pleasant work in fulfilling their roles. The children in the production are some of the finest actors in show, especially Autumn Bay as Little Fan and Mabel Wheeler as the Ghost of Christmas Past. They exude a confidence and level of professionalism on stage that does not always accompany actors of their age. Cario McGee’s performance as Tiny Tim is adorable, and his delivery of his famous line is enough to soften even the hardest of hearts. The choir has beautiful Victorian sound, but occasionally that sound suffers from some intonation issues. It is also difficult to discern who exactly these people are in the world of A Christmas Carol. Sometimes they are townsfolk and can be interacted with, while other times, it seems they are omniscient observers of this ghostly Christmas tale. Additionally, pacing problems among the cast makes for a choppy ride during the performance, especially after scene changes. Aside from these small hiccups, the cast does well in telling their story.
Costume design by Maryann Hill was a technical standout of this production. Each costumes piece is beautiful to behold, and combined with the hair and make-up—designed by Janna Larsen—they transport the audience immediately into A Christmas Carol. Scenic design by Bobby Swenson is simple yet effective, and most importantly, is doesn’t obstruct anyone’s view of the stage. The scenic elements are complimented greatly by the Penny Jones’s scenic painting. The entire theater feels like a dark, ghostly night in Victorian London due to her fantastic painting on what seems like every surface of the theatre. These technical elements are extremely important in telling the story, and these designers have set the stage (quite literally) for their story.
Unfortunately the sound is one aspect that does not quite meet the standards set by the other technical elements. At the beginning and end of the play recordings of Charles Dickens—or some voice actor portraying Charles Dickens—address the audience. The sound quality of these recordings is terrible (and no sound designer is credited in program). They sound old and out of date, but not in any way that adds to the production. They are difficult to understand, and they are even a little grating on the ears. Also, these recordings are inconsistent in their behavior throughout the play. This “Dickens” character has quite a lot to say in the first half of Act I. He even interacts with Scrooge briefly and receives a solid laugh. He then disappears for almost the rest of the play, returning to tie it all up in the last few minutes. This narrator convention feels like its needs more definition, and it definitely needs new recordings.
Overall, the potential of this production of A Christmas Carol was not fully realized. Perhaps more attention to the connective tissues—scene changes, pacing, blocking, and overall energy—would have lifted this production up to another level. But despite the setbacks, this production of A Christmas Carol is incredibly pleasant and would be a wonderful Christmas tradition for anyone, whether or not they are regular theatre patrons. The strengths of this production will send HCTO patrons away with plenty of warm-and-fuzzy feelings and a new found desire to do good. If you are looking for a good way to get into the holiday spirit, go see A Christmas Carol at Hale Center Theatre Orem.