By Amy J. Parrent
Wouldn't it be wonderful to live in a world where "A Christmas Carol" was irrelevant, a strange relic of bad old days? But more than 170 years after the story first appeared, this is still a planet filled with hardened hearts and have-nots. And a lot of us carry some Scrooge within us. Perhaps we all need a quick kick in the priorities, to be reminded occasionally that it's not the material things that matter, but that mankind should be our business.
This season marks the 33rd year that Meadow Brook Theatre has taken us on Scrooge's journey from lonely miser to loving mentor. The theater's annual tradition dates to when Terence Kilburn – who played Tiny Tim in the 1938 film version – was artistic director. Meadow Brook's version of the story was adapted and originally directed by Kilburn's partner, Charles Nolte, while the briskly well-staged current version was directed by Terry W. Carpenter.
MBT's show is visually – and auditorially – rich. From the audience, perched in the steeply descending seating that leads down to the stage, it's like watching a 19th-century British illustration come to life, from the pre-show caroling to the moment the curtains open on lovely Victorian sets and costumes (created by Peter W. Hicks and Mary Pettinato), and on through a show that makes ample use of excellent sound and lighting effects (designed by Mike Duncan and Reid G. Johnson).
Veteran Detroit actor Thomas D. Mahard has appeared in various roles in more than 1,000 performances of "Carol" at Meadow Brook. His Scrooge starts out not as an ultimate evil one-percenter, but rather a cranky and morose, occasionally even daffy, old uncle. This Scrooge nervously counts the individual coals in the small office stove, and is so immersed in money he can speed-count his banknotes and recognize the sound of different coins clinking in his cashbox. And yet we can soon see how his heart will melt, even in the first ghostly excursion. There, he immediately tries to jump into the middle of that long-ago party thrown by his beloved first boss, old Fezziwig, even partnering up with the Spirit of Christmas Past for a quick jig.
Among the other featured cast, Mark Rademacher does a strong double duty as a vivid Ghost of Jacob Marley and the kind of Ghost of Christmas Present you'd like to be: both jolly to those who need his warmth, and stern with Scrooge. Another standout, Tobin Hissong, is a kind and loving Bob Cratchit.
The remainder of the supporting cast is uniformly good, from Cratchit's kids to the various Londoners of past, present and future. The staging and ensemble are particularly effective in the flash-forward sequence to the dark days of Christmas future. In an inky gloom, a giant specter and an ensemble of anonymous black-clad figures surround Scrooge as he witnesses the universal disinterest in his demise. A quartet of actors – Phil Powers, Judy Dery, Sara Catheryn Wolf and Chip Duford – are wonderful as the sarcastic serving-class folk picking through Dead Scrooge's belongings, happy to mock and make a couple of pence off a guy who cared nothing for them in life.
Who doesn't wonder how they're regarded now, and how they'll be remembered? And so it's a timeless story not just because there is still poverty and selfishness in the world, but because we relate all too well to Scrooge's sadness and pettiness and inner desire to be better.
So if your ho, ho, ho has got up and gone, if you've got yourself a good case of the humbugs, if you need a few spirits to lift up your spirit, get yourself to Meadow Brook Theatre this holiday season.
'A Christmas Carol'
Meadow Brook Theatre
2200 N. Squirrel Road, Rochester
8 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 16
2 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 3
8 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 10, 17
8 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 4, 11, 18
8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 5, 12, 19
2 p.m. & 6:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 30, Dec. 6, 7, 13, 14, 20, 21