SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Watching the Contemporary Theater Company’s rendition of “A Christmas Carol” could change any miserly and hard-edged Scrooge into someone warm-and-fuzzy.
Actors young and old captured the heartfelt feelings of this enduring Christmas tale. It offered vivid scenes of life’s lessons of generosity, empathy and understanding. They emerge as important today as 176 years ago when Charles Dickens wrote this play, which South Kingstown performer, musician, teacher and man-of-many talents, Matt Fraza, adapted for CTC.
Family time, nostalgia and simple Christmas enjoyment is all part of this holiday production. It provokes wonder and draws mystery through powerful feelings it projects on the audience about the season.
The only “bah, humbug” in that darkened theater came from veteran actor Terry Simpson playing Ebenezer Scrooge. Meanwhile, loud applause from the audience showed those enjoying the play were also put in the giving mood of the Christmas spirit. Word of mouth alone will sell this production well.
“Joy to the World,” “Come All Ye Faithful” and “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” are among several carols that resonated throughout the theater when sung by the cast. With piano accompaniment by long-time CTC musician Jean Maxon Carpenter, together their tour de force can unblock any clogged sentiments about holidays.
Winfield Swanson, a 2018 University of Rhode Island graduate in classical studies and theater, belts out the lyrics to the songs while also performing roles as Jacob Marley, Louisa and even an undertaker. His deep voice, rising above the others, throws each note to the ears of listeners to catch.
CTC wraps itself in true-to-story fashion around the original 1843 novella by Charles Dickens (1812-1870). This writer, novelist and social critic in Victorian England, published it during a time that British culture pondered the meaning of Christmas traditions and customs. Family, friends, charity for the poor as well as feasts, songs and games were all part of the seasonal expressions.
CTC brings all these out in the play. The production, on CTC’s main stage, at 327 Main St., Wakefield, also captures this aesthetic of the era. Costume designers Valerie Tarantino, a veteran of other CTC performances, and Steph Traversa, Maddie England and Chris Herron bring the audience back in time with the realism of the clothes actors wear. These include full-skirted dresses, high-waisted trousers, top hats as well as majestic gowns worn by the ghosts of Christmases Past and Present, and the morose black robe and hood hiding the face of Christmas Future.
Simpson is no newbie to this Scrooge act. Last year on the Arctic Playhouse stage, in West Warwick, he gave his first appearance as Scrooge. With this next casting, he seemed at times to be channeling Dickens.
For those unfamiliar -- another reason to see this play in person -- the storyline goes that Scrooge is some mean guy, beats up on employee Bob Cratchit at work and mystical forces confront Scrooge for his behavior and attitude. He gets three visits from ghosts - Christmases Past, Present and Future -- that take him on journeys that are surreal, emotion-evoking, sentimental and finally terrifying about his life.
CTC captures well through this play the allegorical meaning of these journeys that have both seasonal and religious connotations at once. They draw questions about giving to others, what have we done lately for people, including those we don’t know, and the testament at our death about our life.
A prized moment of the night came from 13-year-old Mia Daley as Ghost of Christmas Past, the first of his three visiting ghosts. Daley would snap her fingers, then grouchy and mean Scrooge would be nearly moved to tears, as she summoned warm, cozy and tender scenes from his past, now contrasted to his hard, crusty and abrasive manner. She’s been involved with theater for seven years, but plays the part like she’s done it for decades.
Next, he confronted the realism of Christmas Present, a ghost played by Director Maggie Cady, filling in for Tarantino. Cady, in a therapist-like way, leads him to think about his actions. Then in a resolute performance by Ashley Macamaux, the silent, but stolid and masked, grim reaper ghost of Christmas Future lets only scenes of disdain for Scrooge and his death reveal how people see him – but it’s not too late.
With emotion, a hallmark of veteran actor Simpson in other plays, he lets an ornery Scrooge creep out at the beginning, but soon his characteristic softer side comes to light – literally on a stage with dynamic lighting by Reed Reed and Chris Simpson whose illumination helps to reveal strong expressive features of each performer.
With the last ghost, Scrooge sees his grave and people rejoicing at a party. Simpson draws a remorseful tone signaling that final transformation brought by an epiphany — the “aha moment” in life — about himself and that summons change within him.
Cady said later, “I see the ghosts each changing him in their own way, so it’s a journey with many steps. Past helps him remember the kinder, gentler person he used to be, which starts to bring him back to that feeling. Present appeals to his empathy, which he has ignored for so long. Future presents a warning.”
As some have opined, the novella written in the Victorian period could also have some moralizing in a quasi-religious way. In the religious sense, the tale can be seen as a parable about love, giving and helping others, part of Christian moral beliefs as well as Victorian England.
So, too, is redemption. The play is true to Dickens intention of wanting to show that abrasive, insensitive and selfish people can be changed into contributing, socially caring and charitable individuals. CTC allows the audience to draws either the religious or secular meanings with no tilted emphasis either way.
In this strong performance by Simson and the ensemble of performers, they brought these scenes alive with intimacy for the audience and realism from what people know about others in life.
All actors played other various characters and this came together, along with teams of children who performed in roles as children to create a real feeling about those whose hearts are innocent. Very much like the young Scrooge, played by Ezra Jorden, who has been part of the company since 2011, all hit home Dickens’ main theme of the novella.
CTC is a group daring to explore innovation and push the edges around its performances. As one reviewer noted last year, “The company’s previous December shows have included offbeat original productions and irreverent contemporary pieces. While the Cratchit family is no stranger to the CTC stage (from previous productions of Christopher Durang’s “Mrs. Bob Cratchit’s Wild Christmas Binge”), this marks the first time in the theater’s 13-year history that Charles Dickens classic has been presented.”
And in this second year of the production, Director Maggie Cady hugs the traditional approach to the play, no doubt influenced by her own history with it. In the playbill director’s note, she explained that as a young child she would go to rehearsals with her grandmother -- today 93 -- who choreographed “A Christmas Carol” for two decades.
“For so many people like us, “A Christmas Carol” holds a special place in their hearts as a family tradition, whether it’s seeing the play every year, reading the novella aloud or watching my personal favorite film adaptation of it -- “The Muppet Christmas Carol,’” Cady wrote.
The loud applause at the end of the show, as the cast sang “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” left people feeling good and no one saying, Bah, humbug.
The cast includes Sami Avigdor, Susie Chakmakian, Ezra Jordan, Ashley Macamaux, Tina Moore, Terry Simpson, Robert Solomon, Winfield Swanson, and Valerie Tarantino with two rotating casts of children including Ezri Acton, Jazsmin Black, Sabrina Blaney, Lu Culpepper, Mia Daly, Lucy Dunning, Judah Geunes, Julian Gewirtz, Alba Grandidge, Maeve Johnson, Sophia Jones and Harper Rodman.
The crew includes Maggie Cady, Eddie Peitsch, Rebecca Magnotta, Chris Simpson, Miranda Foreman, Valerie Tarantino, Steph Traversa, Maddie England, Chris Herron, Reed Reed, Gabi Blue, Alice Dunning, Caitlyn Pierce and Jean Maxon Carpenter.
Tickets for the 90-minute show, which runs through December 22, are available on the theater’s website www.contemporarytheatercompany.com or by calling the Box Office at 401-218-0282.