Review: Jefferson Mays Brings His Ghastly Good Christmas Carol to Broadway
The Tony-winning actor performs in a deliciously frightening solo version of the Dickens classic.
There are so many theatrical, film, and TV versions of Charles Dickens's yuletide ghost story A Christmas Carol available for your holiday consumption that you may wonder why in the name of Bob Cratchit we would need another. To you, dear reader, I would offer that you have never seen a Christmas Carol quite like the one now running on Broadway at the Nederlander Theatre, and that if you see only one version of Dickens's classic tale this season, this should be it.
The main reason for this praise is Jefferson Mays, who portrays more than 50 characters in a 95-minute adaptation that he, Susan Lyons (his wife), and director Michael Arden put together. This is not the first time the production has been staged; it had its world premiere at the Geffen Playhouse in 2018, and in 2020 it was filmed for streaming audiences at the United Palace Theater in Washington Heights while Broadway was closed. According to our critic, the taped version was a triumph, but no film can come close to seeing Mays work his stage magic in person.
Unlike Jack Thorne's reimaged Tony-winning Christmas Carol from 2019, the script for this production comes verbatim from Dickens's writings — both the book and the text that Dickens used in his own performative readings. It's doesn't comprise the entire novella (that would take a little over three hours to get through), but Ebenezer Scrooge, Marley's Ghost, the three Spirits, Tiny Tim, and dozens of other characters you know (and some you might not) all come to life in one of the spookiest Christmas Carols you'll ever see.
That's because Arden and his creative team have really leaned hard into the ghost story angle of the tale. The first thing we see onstage is an open coffin barely visible in a dense shroud of shadows (lighting designer Ben Stanton does as much with darkness in this show as he does with light). The loud slam of the coffin lid (Joshua D. Reid's sound design echoes through the theater with heart-pounding clarity) made audience members jump out of their seats with laughter at the performance I attended. It also made an infant in the audience scream in fright. It's worth mentioning that while tweens and teens will probably have fun with the loud noises and eerie atmosphere, some little ones may find the sounds and images of this production too scary.
With the theater plunged into darkness, we hear a voice intone, "Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that." Then with the strike of a match, we see Mays, illuminated hauntingly by the flame of a single candle, standing before us dressed in black suit and top hat (costume design by Dane Laffrey). He plays the Mourner who will narrate the events that transpired one Christmas Eve, when three spirits — the ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Future — visited the misanthrope Ebenezer Scrooge and changed his mean-spirited miserliness into love and compassion for humankind.
Arden's production uses a fun house of special effects to tell this familiar story. In addition to Stanton's masterful lighting, which transforms the face of the Mourner into the ghoulish apparition of Marley's ghost with only the green glow of a footlight, Laffrey, who also designed the set, surprises us at every turn with his shape-shifting scenery. Like the Grand Staircase in the Harry Potter films, the stairs leading to Scrooge's rooms seem to emerge from nowhere and then just as quietly vanish. Projection designer Lucy Mackinnon, working hand in hand with husband Stanton, cuts through the shadows with spectral effects that create ghostly images everywhere and give us the illusion of Scrooge flying above the streets of London with the Ghost of Christmas Past.
Though Mays is the only performer onstage who speaks, near the end Danny Gardner enters as the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, completely concealed in a massive black shroud, and raises a prophetic arm to warn Scrooge of his impending peril if he does not change his ways. Sound designer Reid gives the play's most terrifying apparition even more menace with a metallic wail as the spirit seems to float through the misty graveyard (here and elsewhere Laffrey's revolving set is used to great effect).
But what of Tiny Tim, Bob, and the rest of the Cratchit clan? Rest assured, dear reader, that this production is not all moody gloom. In a brilliant tour de force, Mays hilariously plays the entire Cratchit family at their festive Christmas dinner, describing the goose and flaming pudding so that we feel like we can actually see it all. It's a theatrical feat to remember, as is the show's finishing touch: a gloriously surprising reveal that will have your eyes popping out of your head. This Christmas Carol will send you out into the cold feeling warm, reflective, and maybe — maybe — just a little less cynical about the state of the world right now. What gift could be better this time of year?