At some point in an adult's life, it becomes obvious that everything in the world doesn't work as well, on a consistent basis, as TiVo and NetFlix©. But there's one local franchise that operates with such well-oiled precision and excellence that it deserves a register mark all its own. And that is A Christmas Carol by the Great Lakes Theater Festival (pat. pend.). This annual excursion into the heart of literature's most miserly curmudgeon is a reliable feast for the senses, and this year, it seems particularly vibrant.
Working from an adaptation and original direction by Gerald Freedman, Great Lakes director Andrew May can dazzle any child and ignite the child inside everyone else. Presented as a story within a story, we observe the Cleaveland family (ha-ha) as they settle down to read Charles Dickens' masterpiece. And in a trice, here's Ebenezer Scrooge berating his punching-bag employee, Bob Cratchit.
Although many of the actors are reprising their roles from previous years, there is no sense of anyone going through the motions. This matinee showing had many youngsters sitting in rapt attention, especially when the first apparition, Jacob Marley, makes his chain-slamming appearance in Scrooge's bedchamber. With his face painted gray as a December afternoon, Lynn Robert Berg turns Ebenezer's old partner into a no-nonsense apparition, his booming voice sending shivers up the aisles.
The less showy roles are also handled with aplomb. Laura Perrotta brings a warm good humor to Mrs. Cleaveland and the wife of Scrooge's nephew, Fred (a playful and genuine Scott Plate). Lovable Fezziwig, in the hands of John Payonk, looks and acts like Santa without the red suit, and Tom Ford is a sweet and touching Cratchit, bearing his pauper's life with cheeky British spunk.
This year's production also finds Dudley Swetland in fine form as Scrooge. Though his edges could be a bit sharper in the early scenes, he nails the transition of the übergrinch into a Christmas-loving softie. His goofy dance and baby talk, as he explores newly awakened nerve endings in his soul, are giddy without being self-conscious or forced.
Of course, much of the fascination of this production lies in the lush set design by John Eaell and Gene Emerson Friedman. With trap doors popping gravestones and a giant, almost floating ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, there are enough visual pyrotechnics to keep everyone's attention fixed on the stage. And then there are the oceans of fog that continually spill out into the audience -- try to get that effect from your plasma TV.
Best of all, the message that Dickens cared about is there in full force: Those who have should help those who have not. Sure, if he were writing in today's America, Dickens would probably be dismissed as a fuzzy-headed socialist. Let's just be glad his morality tale has become part of our holiday tradition -- and hope that his ideas about economic fairness actually take hold someday.
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