By Jenn McKee
Meadow Brook Theatre’s annual stage production of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” – now in its 32nd year – is the ultimate in theater comfort food: You know precisely what you’re going to get, and while it might not be flashy or spicy, it really hits the spot.
This is why, of course, so many families come to see the show, year-in, year-out. For many, it’s a holiday ritual that ranks up there with picking out a tree.
We all know the story: In Victorian London, old miser Ebenezer Scrooge (Thomas D. Mahard) covets money and nothing else; but on Christmas Eve, he’s visited by three ghosts who convince him – via glimpses of his past, present and future – that the people around him are of more worth, and make better company, than the contents of his cash box.
To get you in the holiday spirit, before the show starts, a group of carolers perform on the stage in front of the curtain, wearing Mary Pettinato’s lush, painstakingly layered period costumes. (The fact that everyone’s bundled up for a cold Christmas in England, while not sweating like crazy in a room temperature theater, made me appreciate the fact that the fabrics must look heavy while being, in reality, quite light.)
If you’re not located near the stage, you aren’t likely to hear the informative, but un-mic-ed, introductions to the carols, but no matter. The singers sound polished, and the mini-concert is a pleasant way to set the mood. (The lengthy, recorded pre-show speech, not so much.)
The carolers ultimately lead us into Dickens’ timeless tale, as well as Peter W. Hicks’ detailed, evocative set, largely composed of big, rotating set pieces that show us Scrooge’s street, his office, his bedroom, and more.
And since “A Christmas Carol” is ultimately a ghost story – fitting, considering that the story appears on our cultural radar each year shortly after Halloween – Reid G. Johnson’s perfectly tuned lighting design is central to establishing and sustaining the show’s haunted atmosphere.
A couple of sound designer Mike Duncan’s cues got bungled on Saturday evening, but because the performance I watched was a preview, these are precisely the kind of details that will get ironed out. The only other sound issue was that I struggled to hear lines delivered by some of the young actors in the production.
Generally, though, director Terry W. Carpenter’s production runs like a well-oiled machine, aided by what amounts to a who’s who of the Southeast Michigan professional theater community, including Tobin Hissong, Paul Hopper, Jean Lyle Lepard, Phil Powers, Mark Rademacher, Judy Dery and more.
Mahard, though, of course, stands at the production’s center, and he does so with affecting restraint. His Scrooge isn’t a larger-than-life monster, but rather a grounded, recognizable, grumpy old man who’s simply forgotten, over the course of a long, empty life, what joy feels like. And this makes Mahard’s final scenes, following Scrooge’s change of heart, all the more jubilant.
This was the first time I’d gone to “A Christmas Carol” in several years, and it seemed almost exactly as I remembered it – and there’s something warm and reassuring in this consistency.
Plus, for the first time, I brought along my 5-year-old daughter, Lily. Though the tale is so popular as to be ubiquitous each year, to the point of making me sometimes wonder if I ever want to experience it again, it was brand new to Lily. And by virtue of summarizing the narrative for her before the show, and then watching it through her eyes, “A Christmas Carol” re-gained some currency for me. Rather than seeing the familiar story’s messages as worn cliches, I saw them as truths I could, in various ways, start to pass along to my daughter.
God bless us every one, indeed.
‘A Christmas Carol’
Meadow Brook Theatre, 2200 N. Squirrel Road, Rochester. Through Dec. 22; check calendar listings for complete schedule. $18-41. 248-377-3300. http://www.mbtheatre.com