A Christmas Carol
Data and digits traditionally mean very little in the arena of live stage, but after considering the achievements of the repertory company A Noise Within (Los Angeles' home for the classics), we realize how much the troop's fifth anniversary production of A Christmas Carol — and the folks behind it — truly are gifts that keep on giving.
If five years (and counting) constitute a solid run in L.A.'s volatile playmaking landscape, the 25 years that A Noise Within has spent producing classic theater in a movie town is nearly miraculous. Shakespeare and O'Neill are coming down the pike in the spring at the company's Pasadena digs, but for now the stage belongs to Scrooge. ANW's rendition of Charles Dickens' holiday perennial — directed by the husband-and-wife artistic director team of Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, from Elliott's adaptation — puts the best of A Noise Within on full and vibrant display. Fittingly, this Carol, with Elliott in the role of Scrooge, features many of ANW's longtime company members, old friends who stick around for post-curtain meet-and-greets.
The tale of Ebenezer Scrooge’s encounter with three Christmas ghosts and learning to mend his miserly, holiday-hating ways is the yuletide equivalent of comfort food, and A Noise Within does it up right. From the production's eye-popping costumes (by Angela Balogh Calin) to its charming musical selections (supplied by composer Ego Plum) to some nifty, story-specific special effects (courtesy of scenic designer Jeanine A. Ringer and video designer Sean T. Cawelti), this production is wall-to-wall enchantment. The look and spirit are traditional Victorian with dialogue and narration (provided by actor Freddy Douglas) often taken verbatim from the Dickens's 1843 novella. With a rendition of A Christmas Carol on every street corner these days, A Noise Within deserves a tip of the cap to an experience that bundles all of the necessary components so impressively.
For those considering the nerves of younger theatergoers, the Elliotts' production — though certainly ghostly — goes light on the scares. The most frightening, Jeremy Rabb's Jacob Marley, is rigged up to a series of pulleys that look ready to yank Scrooge's dead partner backward into his chained-up purgatory. We meet Deborah Strang's Ghost of Christmas Past — wearing a ruffled white party dress and a black top hat — and vaulting skyward on a swing. A party-loving ghost, she's right at home at the Fezziwig's ball from Scrooge's youth. Steven Weingartner's Christmas Present is a 10-foot tower of joviality draped in a cornucopia-bedecked robe of fruits and leaves.
While A Christmas Carol can sometimes be a preachy tale, the production nicely mixes the story's moral with a narrative current of festivity. Yes, Scrooge's clerk Bob Cratchit (Eric Curtis Johnson), his wife (Jill Hill), and their six children are poor as church mice. Yes, Tiny Tim is a symbol to the spirit of yuletide benevolence and transformation, but Eli Stuart gives the kid spunk and bravery. In Stuart's hands, Tim is nobody's martyr.
Helping matters considerably is the fact that Elliott's Scrooge hasn't far to journey from "squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, and covetous old sinner" to "as good a man as the good old city ever knew." Although he sports a white beard and uses a walking stick, his Scrooge does not dodder. When provoked, he wings a pencil at Cratchit, and his peevish rejoinders to the people trying to ram Christmas down his throat are the considered reactions of a man who prefers to keep his own company. This Scrooge has clearly thought out this Christmas business and decided to take a pass. As Scrooge journeys down the road to redemption though, Elliott is not so much building an entirely new character as adding new layers to the man we have already met.
The Southland may have longer-running Christmas Carols than A Noise Within's, but few could rival this production's polish. Here's wishing those ghosts continue their Scrooge-changing ways for many more seasons to come.