By D. A. Blackburn
Poor health aside, does an anorexic Santa Claus seem any less jolly? This is the question that’s been rattling around my brain since the opening of Performance Network Theatre’s new holiday show, “Christmas Carol’d.” My answer – having seen Joseph Zettelmaier’s unique re-envisioning of Dickens’ classic tale of redemption – is “no.”
More often than not, when “A Christmas Carol” comes to the stage, it does so with the grandeur and scale of “Aida” – a massive cast, racks of elegant costumes and ornate, elaborate sets. And this is a holiday tradition theatergoers have enthusiastically embraced. Though to its core, “Carol’d” is the same delightful story, it simply isn’t that show.
Instead, it comes to life as the picture of simple elegance and efficiency, stripped down to the barest essentials and a mere five performers.
Thanks to the thoughtful craft of Zettelmaier’s script, little gets lost in the fray. In fact, the production gains a deliberately straightforward humor, and a uniquely human Scrooge.
Four of the production’s five players tackle multiple roles – totaling 33 in all – leaving a few to the imagination and Scrooge a stand-alone part for John Seibert. This unusual approach to casting Dickens’ epic production is certainly the most unique aspect of “Carol’d,” but it is also its greatest achievement, because Zettelmaier’s script, brought to the stage by director David Wolber, manages to keep all these roles distinct, coherent and engaging.
And for the most part, the cast makes fine work of their considerable burdens.
Wolber has given the work a brisk pace, which did cause performers a few stumbles through Dickens’ delicate dialogue opening night. Also, Wolber has made a few awkward decisions with blocking, at times leaving the impression that performers are addressing the audience while actually conversing with each other.
But that said, all five performers make a strong showing. Seibert’s Scrooge, particularly, is a delightful mix of humor and humbug. B. J. Love, Terry Heck and Chelsea Sadler all give satisfying performances, and Kevin Young brings a perfect charm to his roles – most notably that of Fred, Scrooge’s nephew – though his frequently off-key singing drags the work down through the true caroling scenes.
The production also features some excellent design work by Monika Essen, whose beautiful costumes and properties add considerably to the show. Her set is reasonably simple, but attractive and exceedingly functional. Inventive touches – like a cleverly transforming door knocker – add a touch of magic.
So while “Christmas Carol’d” is easily the slimmest and trimmest “Carol” in this critic’s memory, and an endeavor with a few minor flaws, it remains a touching and potent piece of storytelling. And that is why “Carols” of all shapes and sizes continue to haunt theaters each Christmas season. For those looking for a less traditional production, Zettelmaier has created a pleasurable diversion, without losing the powerful moral that has made the work such a prolific success.
And best of all, it’s sure to dispose of any humbug in the audience.
Performance Network Theatre, 120 E. Huron St., Ann Arbor. Thursday through Sunday through Dec. 27. $25-$41. 734-663-0681. http://www.performancenetwork.org