It’s that time of year again, when Marley’s chains come clanking down from the attic. Jefferson Mays’ one-man Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (Nederlander Theatre, to Jan 1) takes in an intimidating total of 50 characters, and the story as you know it—the melting of Ebenezer Scrooge’s cold, cold heart—is fluently told by him. A Christmas Carol may be short, but it is so familiar and so well-known—with everyone having a favorite version (sorry Alastair Sim, it’s the Muppets Christmas Carol for me)—that finding a new way to present and tell it is a perennial challenge.
Playing both narrator and all the characters is no small feat—as reflected by the warm standing ovation for Mays the night this critic attended. But the magic of this production, adapted by Mays, Susan Lyons, and director Michael Arden, is down a lot to Laffrey’s stupendous stage design, which is a riot of trickery and surprises, Ben Stanton’s lighting, and Joshua D. Reid’s sound design.
This critic won’t ruin what is easily the best New York stage shock of the year, but it happens right at the beginning of A Christmas Carol—and freaked our audience out deliciously. Director Arden revels in as many visual wow moments he can stuff into a 90-minute show.
These begin with Mays illuminating a darkened stage with candles, right through to astonishing scene changes on the stage itself—and great “how did they do that?” moments. These include scene changes—including a party scene, and a house decorated sumptuously—and the stage presence of Mays himself (one minute there, and the next over there!). Danny Gardner as “the Spectre” supplies another set of open-mouth causing effects. In this production, the projections feel too modern and spacey, and rankle with the antic spookiness the design and lighting conspire to achieve.
Indeed, these visual tricks are so stunning that the story struggles. There’s the problem of knowing it, and despite Mays’ best efforts, finding a new way to say it, or tapping into a reach seam of characters that are so seared in the popular consciousness already.
In places the story drags, and both my theater buddy and I lost track of it in places, or the voices blur and blend. But 50 characters is a lot, and Mays is such an enthusiastic steward you will still find a familiar lump in your throat forming as the saga of Tiny Tim unfurls. And you will also feel the joy of the post-spooked Scrooge waking up on Christmas morning, full of the joys, ready to make amends. Again, the lighting and stage work at this moment is its own star—indeed the joint star of the show.