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Review: Bradley Whitford Is Not Your Grandpa's Scrooge in Tony-Winning A Christmas Carol

Matthew Warchus's Old Vic Theatre production comes to the Ahmanson in Los Angeles.

Bradley Whitford and Kate Burton in A Christmas Carol
(© Joan Marcus)

The holiday season has come to the Ahmanson Theatre, where London's Old Vic Theatre has installed its annual A Christmas Carol, with Bradley Whitford playing Scrooge. While Jack Thorne's new adaptation does attempt to add dimension to the Scrooge character, painting childhood abuse and a misguided desperation for money as a motivation to evolve into the cold, calculated protagonist of the tale, director Matthew Warchus's vision of turning A Christmas Carol into a psychological drama still reveals the cardboard plotting of the Charles Dickens classic. And even with changes, even the five Tony Award-winning design elements lack enough grandeur to fully recommend this presentation.

Thorne uses Dickens's novella as a jumping off point. Ebenezer Scrooge (Whitford) alienates his family and employees with a cruel, money-grubbing mentality. He even considers a Christmas holiday off for his lone employee Bob Cratchit (Dashiell Eaves) as theft. He returns on Christmas Eve to his lonely home and is haunted through the night by his ex-partner, Jacob Marley (Chris Hoch) and three ghosts (Kate Burton, Alex Newell, Glory Yepassis-Zembrou) to teach the miser about charity, love, and the Christmas spirit.

Warchus and Thorne make several alterations to give the piece some dramatic heft. First, they imagine an alcoholic father, scornful of Ebenezer since childhood but demanding financial restitution for the burden of being born. Second, they cast the same actor as this father and Jacob Marley, giving subtext to the protagonist's rocky relationship with his long dead partner. Finally, instead of using the monstrous creature that usually represents the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, they utilize Ebenezer's beloved sister Fan as the final ghost.

Therefore, where many versions have Scrooge suddenly become altruistic because he realizes no one cares about his death, here, the nurturing ghost and her wayward brother have a therapy session to discover when her sweet sibling veered so heavily off course. Thorne also adds a new resolution where Scrooge mends with his great love Belle and conspires with his nephew to turn the Cratchit family holiday into a great celebration. These changes make act two more vital than the first — at intermission, the play felt boring and warmed over, but the audience finally cares about the characters in act two.

Alex Newell and Bradley Whitford in A Christmas Carol
(© Joan Marcus)

The end, though, devolves into mockery when the writing forces some meta jokes about Los Angeles and even the theater's departing artistic director, Michael Ritchie (who happens to be Burton's husband). These spoofy anachronisms are appropriate for parodies, but the tone of the entire evening clashes against these witticisms about Orange County and Beverly Hills.

Whitford is not your grandfather's Ebenezer. Bringing the self-mocking wryness that led to an Emmy for The West Wing, he commands the stage as both protagonist and commentator. Burton is ethereal as the motherly first spirit, and though Newell's unclear delivery makes some of his lines hard to decipher, when he sings, his belt is a mighty roar.

Warchus lends elements from the United Kingdom to add flavor to the evening. He and composer Christopher Nightingale have the company play famous carols like "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" and "O Holy Night" on cast iron bells so they sound like a human carillon. Costume Designer Rob Howell has most fun with the patchwork dresses the ghosts wear, festive and colorful in the autumnal vein. His set is minimalist and impressionistic, except for a ceiling littered with lanterns hung by heavy chains. It's an oppressive visual to represent the protagonist's psyche.

Though not always succeeding, Warchus's A Christmas Carol challenges to add something new from the much-told tale, bringing modern sensibilities to a story that, though famous, doesn't invest in the characters. Had the first act found some additional hooks to interest the audience as much as the second act does, it would have been a much better holiday gift.