As holiday traditions grow scarcer and scarcer, it's nice to know that one has stayed constant. For 31 years, Great Lakes Theater has been proud to present A Christmas Carol to folks looking for that nostalgic Christmas feel from the beloved Charles Dickens novel, adapted for the stage by Gerald Freedman.
It's safe to say that we're all familiar with the tale: Ebenezer Scrooge (Lynn Robert Berg), a name synonymous with greed and wealth, lives his life in a way that can be politely described as callus and lacking in empathy. The only thing necessary for him to change his ways is a spiritual intervention, through a haunting visit of his deceased business partner, Jacob Marley (David Anthony Smith) and subsequent visits from the ghosts of Christmas Past (Patrick John Kiernan), Present (Leilani Barrett) and Future (also Kiernan). As his life flashes before his eyes and the future looks ever so bleak should he continue his habits, Scrooge is forced to contemplate his life choices.
This adaptation, also directed by Freedman, is told through the narrative lens of a family enjoying a bedtime reading of the novel on Christmas Eve. As the mother (Laura Welsh Berg) reads passages of the novel to drive the story forward, her youngest, Master William (Ian McLaughlin and Avery Pyo), often stands in the background as if he is witnessing the novel unfold within his imagination. In a Wizard of Oz-style metaphor, the uptight caretaker of the home, Samuels, is also played by Lynn Robert Berg.
Along with the dialogue, the word-for-word recital showcases Dicken's antiquated vernacular, which — compared with modern interpretations — feels almost Shakespearean. Dicken's mastery of luxurious linguistic patterns is placed front and center, with a cheesy old English cadence by most — there are clear exceptions which are more palatable — of the cast for good measure.
Speaking of the cast, the ensemble is massive, which gives the musical numbers a robust energy. One negative, however, is the visible overuse of shared roles within the ensemble. In more crowded sequences, character changes are frequent enough that the whereabouts of some characters and the ability to distinguish them is unimportant. This doesn't discredit the work of the performers, who maintain an approachable, get-up-and-go attitude.
In his fourth year as Scrooge with Great Lakes, Lynn Robert Berg gives a refreshingly controlled performance rather than an outright caricature, with an accent not too thick and an oral posture that speaks to his experience on stage. In comparison, Barrett — in his debut season with Great Lakes — showcases his warm, powerful voice and charm.
With some deliberation, Laura Welsh Berg can be considered to be the best female vocalist within the cast, with a commanding yet easy-going voice that pairs well with everyone else in the ensemble. As for the most memorable male vocalist, one could argue for Kiernan, whose clear delivery is one of the few discernible in ensemble songs in his other role as a lone corner-of-the-street singer.
Credit is also due to Nick Steen, in his dual role as Scrooge's whipping boy and business associate, Bob Cratchit, and the father in the family narrative scenes. Steen's smile fills the stage with a pleasant ambiance and he nails the tropes of the downtrodden yet optimistic character incredibly well. Similarly, Daniel Millhouse's performance as a younger Scrooge and nephew Fred injects the production with a youthful vigor and unabashed exuberance.
Every element immerses the audience in the experience, from the pre-requisite elaborate costumes by James Scott to the crafty sound design by Tom Mardikes and Stan Kozak, wherein echoes, off-stage dialogue and booming re-recorded lines are injected to spice up the narrative. In addition, the costume department adds some pizzazz with the stilt-assisted Christmas Present costume and Marley's chain-lined suit, which assisted by the sound department's effects catalog makes one of the most impressive practical effects.
The scenic design by John Ezell and Gene Freedman is larger than life, with meticulous bannisters, revolving set pieces and a visually astounding moving clock that drops down periodically between the spirits' arrivals in Scrooge's home. Another notable signature set piece is a split false wall that remains just as impressive toward the end as the first time it cracks open. In turn, props are also second-to-none and time-tested with the years of use on stage.
Complementing this is some rather cinematic, stark lighting by design team Mary Jo Dondlinger, Jeff Herrmann and Cynthia Stillings. The mood and lighting changes quickly throughout the various montages and locations, but it is the sulky greens and higher contrasts that stand out, accompanied by a healthy dose of smoke and strobe lights.
Overall, it's difficult to find a more faithful adaptation of the classic novel, creating a spectacle out of one crotchety old man's road to redemption with humor, dynamic performances and an uplifting moral center perfect for families. In a world where picky spectators complain that "the book was better," this production lives and breathes the influential words of that timeless holiday classic — leaving even the nitpickers with little room for complaint. With magnificent set pieces, a majestic presentation inside the opulent Ohio Theatre and a charm seldom repeated by modern holiday media, A Christmas Carol is still an excellent option to ring in the Christmas season.