"Marley was dead, to begin with."
December brings many things specific to the season and one of them is "A Christmas Carol," Charles Dickens' rich tale of redemption, a staple offering of countless theater companies this month, across the country and beyond.
How this 19th century classic of literature is brought to life on stages today ranges from minimalist readings, assorted abstractions and daffy adaptations to all-out theatrical Victorian feasts with lavish trimmings.
At A Noise Within in Pasadena, co-artistic director Geoff Elliott hits the high points in his engaging, if brisk 90-minute production for all ages, using Dickens' language (albeit in short excerpts) and weaving in original songs to celebrate the tale's message — more timely now than ever.
Helming the production with his co-artistic director, Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, Geoff Elliott is the show's pitch-perfect Scrooge, too. (Before this Scrooge's soul-expanding conversion to empathy and generosity, even his walk is cranky.)
The show, featuring a lively ensemble, quicksteps the pace with touches that are both mildly spooky and comic. Scrooge's first encounter with the supernatural — his door-knocker transforms into a ghostly apparition — is done with an ominous projected visual image and green glowing eyes. The trip back in time to festivities at Fezziwig's encompasses dancing and circus-like acrobatics, and the dinner guests at the home of Scrooge's good-hearted nephew Fred (Rafael Goldstein) unexpectedly don masks for a witty musical number.
The creative team plays a large part in the success of the production overall. Ken Booth provides crucial mood lighting throughout. Jeanine A. Ringer's scenic design smoothly incorporates representative mobile set pieces — bleak wintery trees, Scrooge's office furniture and four-poster bed, a giant tombstone — as well as the atmosphere-enhancing projections, hanging windows and the old-fashioned metal framework that flanks the stage.
Costume designer Angela Balogh Calin scores with Victorian-style garb and a suggestion of steampunk, and with her eclectic envisioning of the tale's supernatural manifestations. Deborah Strang's cheeky Ghost of Christmas Past glides across the stage in white ruffled gown, sporting attitude and a black top hat and exiting with a twirl of her red parasol. Alan Blumenfeld, the Ghost of Christmas Present, looms over the proceedings courtesy of a raised platform hidden by his voluminous fruit-studded robe. (He is rolled across the stage fairly unobtrusively by Scrooge and ensemble members.)
Neither is a more dramatic sight than Marley's Ghost, played by Mitchell Edmonds, who is a hoot as the penitent phantom, delivering dead Marley's cautionary message with lugubrious regret. Edmonds wears vast bonds of chain links and tattered rags, and makes a wow of an entrance to the accompaniment of sound designer Ego Plum's dismal clanks and hollow moans. (Plum also composed the show's original music, including pleasant celebratory songs performed by the ensemble.)
Calin's fizzle is the dark, shaggy Ghost of Christmas Future. The unidentified actor inside the costume, maneuvering on short stilts, has the unfortunate appearance of an ungainly, waddling Bigfoot.
Despite the play's abbreviated scope that can only skim the rewards to be found in the original story, Dickens' uplifting message rings true. Stephen Rockwell, in his truncated role as Bob Cratchit, the impoverished clerk who so loves Tiny Tim (Shane McDermott), manages to convey touching emotional depth, and Elliott's expertise makes the transformative journey a layered one as he moves Scrooge with conviction from pinched miserliness, fear and regret to redemptive capering delight and good will.
Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena
When: 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday. Also runs 2 p.m. Dec. 22 and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 19. Ends Dec. 22.
Tickets: $46 to $62
More info: (626) 356-3100, Ext. 1, anoisewithin.org
LYNNE HEFFLEY writes about theater and culture for Marquee.