Everyone’s done it. You’re running late for a party, you meant to bring a gift, you spot a bottle at the store and you snatch it up. Only when you’re on the subway do you realize — Wait, this isn’t wine. (For those who have never encountered “wine product,” pour some Hawaiian Punch into a cup, threaten it with a grape, and voilà.) There’s a similar delay in the experience of A Christmas Carol on Broadway. You start out with the comfortable sensation that you’ve come to your umpteenth revival of the Charles Dickens classic, ready for some beloved old wine in a new bottle. But as playwright Jack Thorne’s adaptation proceeds, that feeling becomes the creeping suspicion that it’s not really liquor in there. Some weird and unnecessary process has taken place: The story’s deep social concern has been shifted out of the way in favor of an unconvincing self-realization tale. The already high-sugar-content sentiment of the original dissolves into goo, boneless without its moral armature.
At least, that’s what this little Grinch thought. I should admit that I was surrounded, the other night, by a number of cheerful Carol-goers who found the whole evening charming. Director Matthew Warchus has brought over his production from London (where he’s the artistic director of the Old Vic), and there’s a jolly, pantomime-flavored maximalism to his staging. As in a holiday panto, the casting makes absolutely no sense. Why is Tony-winner LaChanze one of the ghosts? Why is Tony-winner Andrea Martin another one? It’s not like they have many lines or any songs — these roles are one step removed from cameo appearances. Yet the “Tony-winners-just-drop-by” quality makes the whole thing feel sort of merrily community-theaterish, if your community were Broadway. And even my lump-of-coal heart was delighted by the preshow, when cast members played music and hurled clementines and bags of cookies into the crowd. (Sarah Hunt has a hell of an arm.)
The room is full of lanterns, hundreds of lit ones overhead, even more dead ones piled up onstage in little heaps. Designer Rob Howell’s set makes good sense — especially if you think of the lights as lives, with the dead making up the landscape — but his costumes are weird: Scrooge (Campbell Scott) wears a fuchsia frock coat that seems to have been made out of an overdyed rug, and the ghosts wear pink-and-purple floral dresses with ragged bits of applique. (There’s a general “a window at ABC Carpet and Home comes to life” feeling about them.) Warchus makes some goofy choices in the production, but at least it’s bighearted. Everybody’s twinkling and smiling, the every-carol-in-the-box music direction does its work effectively, and there’s a call for charitable giving at the end.
A brief and unscientific poll of two people reveals that though everyone has seen A Christmas Carol and vaguely remembers the characters, few remember the actual plot. Ebenezer Scrooge is a miserly bad ’un who asks too much of his employee Bob Cratchit (Dashiell Eaves), is unforgiving about debts, and doesn’t accept the whole vibe of Christmas in his heart. The ghost of his moneylending partner Marley (Chris Hoch) appears rattling the “chain … forged in life” to tell him that three spirits will come to show him the error of his ways and to give him the opportunity to mend them.
So far, so Dickens. At this point in the play, Thorne is often quoting directly from the novella, and you might be delighted all over again at how good those 1843 burns were. For instance, Scrooge sees Marley’s gray face, proof-positive of a terrifying cosmology, and he says — eh, you’re probably my indigestion acting up. “There’s more of gravy than of the grave about you,” Scrooge sniffs. Put this dude on the front lines! Nerves like steel. The mild-mannered Scott is an oddly handsome Scrooge, and so they don’t mess up his white hair with the customary nightcap, but otherwise we’re on old, old ground here. One might begin to wonder why Jack Thorne, a Tony-winner himself for the Harry Potter play, was needed for the adaptation.
Events start to show Thorne’s hand once the marquee visitations begin. The Ghost of Christmas Past (Martin, slow-rolling her own charisma) shows him childhood, including his beloved sister Fan (Rachel Prather), and the sweetheart he lost (Hunt); the Ghost of Christmas Present (LaChanze) shows him the Cratchit home and Tiny Tim (the adorable Jai Ram Srinivasan); the Ghost of Christmas Future (who turns out to be Fan for some reason), asks him if he is being kind to his memory of the little badly nurtured boy he once was. Record scratch: what? That’s not the old story; Thorne is now cutting sloppily from whole cloth. There are new scenes with his father, who turns out to be the root cause of Ebenezer’s damage. The terrifying skeletal finger that points to Scrooge’s headstone has evaporated. And more important, Scrooge’s moral conversion — which originally came from seeing the impact of care and want — now happens out of … pity for his own younger self. No, no, no! Dickens thought you were supposed to get over yourself. Thorne’s interest in father-son dysfunction already swallowed up the Harry Potter plays, now this voracious theme eats A Christmas Carol.
I feel ungrateful: They threw us oranges, now I’m throwing tomatoes. And it’s not as though the original had its values strictly in order — to alleviate suffering, Dickens said, we only need the largesse of the very rich. I’d rather the urchins started seizing the means of production, you know? Let that specter haunt Europe. But it’s disconcerting to see something so old and sturdy and, I might add, out of copyright, be turned into a text about personal fulfillment. As for audience fulfillment? The story basically stops about twenty minutes before the end and pure entertainment begins — audience participation and musical numbers. Warchus knows what he’s up to: The show-closing gags are good enough that most people will only remember the delight that comes from prop comedy and handbell choirs. Fake snow falls and the people in the orchestra reach up to touch it. It’s foam, so it disperses before you can touch it. But there are a lot of people happy with froth. God bless ’em, every one.
A Christmas Carol is at the Lyceum Theatre through January 5.