A Christmas Carol review: Bradley Whitford lends this holiday classic new wit and whimsy
It's impossible to imagine the holiday season without A Christmas Carol. The Charles Dickens novella, which has since been adapted to just about every imaginable format in the last 100-plus years, is a Christmas ur-text — a piece of fiction that is not just part of our seasonal traditions but foundational to them.
Given that, it's a difficult task to breathe new life and energy into the work. But a new production, as adapted by Jack Thorne (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) and originally directed by Matthew Warchus (Matilda the Musical), knows how to keep Christmas well.
Bradley Whitford currently leads a touring production of the Tony-winning adaptation at Los Angeles' Ahmanson Theater and his Ebeneezer Scrooge is a wonder to behold. Whitford gives the famous miser a richly layered and complex shading, giving him a wry and knowing sensibility even in his most curmudgeonly moments. Whitford's interpretation of Thorne's script bring Scrooge's childhood wounds to the surface in compelling ways that make him so much more than a guy who likes to shout "Bah, Hambug."
He's particularly marvelous when it comes to Scrooge's redemption and transformation, laying bare the hurt and lost little boy in his soul. His radiant joy when he realizes he hasn't missed Christmas and endeavors to set things right is practically beatific. Whitford infuses Scrooge's shift with an erratic, ecstatic exultation that sparks from him like a live-wire and provokes plenty of warm laughter, as both he and the audience are in on the sheer audacity and absurdity of this second chance.
But he wisely balances that frenetic energy with an emotional resonance that acknowledges the mystery and the miracle of Scrooge's journey. Whitford rivals Michael Caine in his portrayal, lending Scrooge both a gravity and a twinkle in his eye that makes him easy to root for.
Whitford is backed up by an extraordinary ensemble who bring the proceedings to rapturous life with a score of gloriously arranged Christmas carols and a winning musicality. Alex Newell and Kate Burton do some heavy lifting as the Ghosts of Christmas Present and Past respectively. Newell lays it on a bit thick, his thick Caribbean patois verging into caricature at times. But his singing voice is so resplendent it's hard to mind. Burton is lilting and lovely, her often pragmatic presence as an actor becoming something effectively enigmatic here.
But it's the sheer power of the ensemble and the way the production design, costumes, and stagecraft work in concert with each other that make this something extraordinary. As directed here by Thomas Caruso, the proceedings make exceptional use of the Ahmanson's cavernous space. Often, intimate productions can be swallowed up by the large house, but Caruso's staging makes use of all the theater's levels, bringing the audience into the heart of the action.
Rob Howell's set, dotted with piles of lantern rubble and heavy chains that echo Jacob Marley's fate, is an evocative space for the action that relies on pantomime and imagination to create spaces as varying as Scrooge's bedroom and the Cratchit's front door. Hugh Vanstone's lighting complements the set design, the hundreds of evocative, functioning lanterns hanging from the rafters a character in their own right.
Christopher Nightingale's music arrangements, Simon Baker's sound design, and Lizzi Gee's movement flow together to create a fluid ensemble that restores the most essential element of A Christmas Carol to the proceedings — its sense of mystery and wonder. Dickens wrote a ghost story, and the haunting, elegiac arrangements of carols accompanied by a flowing economy of movement make the production feel delightfully otherworldly.
There's also just an abundance of jubilance — from Whitford's obvious glee to be doing live theater to the many, many festive, mirthful moments involving snow and dancing. Scrooge learns to welcome and honor love, to suck the marrow from life — and that's what this production as a whole promotes, that mindset emanating from every actor and artistic choice.
It even extends beyond the curtain call. On opening night, Whitford, who recently portrayed Stephen Sondheim in Netflix's adaptation of Tick, Tick…Boom!, made a wry speech honoring the late legendary composer and dedicated a final spell-binding rendition of "Silent Night" to him.
The experience of the pandemic has taught us all the necessity of living in the past, the present, and the future. This production is Center Theatre Group's first return to their stages in 20 months, and it's the perfect encapsulation of theater's healing and catharsis. How can anyone leave this show and not feel merry and light? Live theater is back, and in the words of Tiny Tim, god bless us everyone. Grade: A