OREM — The stories of Charles Dickens are easily adapted to the stage, not just because he was a great writer, but because he wrote great melodrama. His novels play into our emotions of nostalgia, love, happiness, and heart-wrenching tragedy. And of all his tales, perhaps the one most suited to the stage is A Christmas Carol.
A Christmas Carol is a holiday theatrical tradition in many places, but it is an especially treasured tradition in Utah. There may be many reasons for this, but I think that the primary reason is that the culture of Christian faith in Utah finds a voice in Dickens’s tale. Despite the absence of traditional Biblical characters and the inclusions of only slight passing references to church-going and the like, A Christmas Carol speaks of the profound necessity of active faith. The cast at Orem’s Hale Center Theatre, under the direction of Jerry Elison, communicates this message in a very delightful Dickensian way, focusing on character, story, and melodramatic theatricality.
One of the most noteworthy aspects of the Hale Center’s annual production is that it is a family affair. Families come in droves to sit in the audience together and families spend long hours in rehearsal together on stage. The blood ties make the play all the more accessible to those experiencing it. And child actors are integral to the production’s success. What would A Christmas Carol be, after all, if there weren’t a Tiny Tim? (played in this performance by Owen Hunt). The child actors in this production are delightful and impart enthusiastic energy and magical innocence. They are complemented by a very fine adult cast who embody their characters fully and assist the audience in their very easy transition to an appropriate suspension of disbelief. Most convincing, however, is Chris Brower as Ebenezer Scrooge. His comic timing is spot-on, his physicality is perfect, and his sincerity in the role is both maddening and heart-warming. He is a most enjoyable Scrooge.
The script, adapted from Dickens with music and lyrics by Cody Hale, succinctly communicates all the necessities of the original story. There is a mildly awkward transition in the first quarter of the play, however, when the performance turns to musical theatre. In the beginning, Christmas carols are sung by the cast in scene transitions, but the songs are later incorporated into the script. Though this is initially jarring, the music ultimately becomes integrated with the melodramatic fabric of the performance. “What Child is This,” sung by Eric Glissmeyer as Bob Cratchit at Tiny Tim’s grave in a “Christmas Yet to Come” scene, brought noticeable tears from some in the audience.
In addition to those scenes which tug at the heart strings, there are plenty of laughs to keep all ages entertained. It is also a quick-moving production with no dead time between scenes. The movement on stage is continual and the choreography by Marin Elizabeth Leggat is seamlessly woven with the dialogue and music. There are some moments that may strike one as particularly contrived, but these moments are in keeping with Dickens’ own manner of construction. Script and performance elements aside, the show is also well-designed. Because it is in the round, the set is sparse, but every piece of prop and furniture serves a function and places the scene. In contrast, the attentively constructed costumes designed by Maryann Hill are visually stimulating, suiting the period and characters.
There is no doubt that the members of the artistic team at Orem’s Hale Center Theatre know what they are doing, and they certainly don’t need a good review for ticket sales. The house was packed. But it is worth calling to see if there are seats still available. There are two alternating casts (though Chris Bower plays Scrooge in all performances), but an inequality in performances would be a surprise. If you go and allow yourself to be fully enveloped in the melodrama, you will certainly be touched.