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A Christmas Carol

"The theatre is a religious institution dedicated entirely to the spiritual exaltation of humankind." —Maxwell Anderson, American playwright (Pulitzer Prize, 1933, Both Your Houses), paraphrasing Aristotle, with gender neutral edit by this reviewer.

In the 15th and early 16th centuries, when Western theatre began to emerge from under the heavy hand of the Church, the morality play was born, Everyman being the most well-known of the genre. Morality plays are allegorical in nature: the protagonist is met by personifications of various moral attributes who try to persuade him to choose a spiritual life over a materialistic one.

Sam Gregory as Ebenezer Scrooge
Sam Gregory as Ebenezer Scrooge
Photo: AdamsVisCom
Over 350 years after Everyman, Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, which he called a ghost story, and the four ghosts or spectres that visit Ebenezer Scrooge do play central roles in his epiphany; but, in an overarching sense, when the story was (immediately) adapted for the stage, it represented a sophisticated theatrical update and spiritual refinement of the morality play. Indeed, Margaret Oliphant (1881) wrote that the book was regarded as "a new gospel" in its first days.

As such, it has become an indispensable ritual that ushers in the holidays with a reminder of what the season is really about. The story's message is so potent, that no materialistic excess shall shake our faith in its message.

The Denver Center Theatre Company's annual production of Richard Hellesen's adaptation of Dickens' masterpiece, with music by David de Berry, is one of the most beautiful, lush, and touching versions we're ever likely to see live, as this year's show once again attests.

The Cratchits
The Cratchits
Photo: AdamsVisCom
Sam Gregory shines in his first season as Scrooge, the notorious miserly money lender, denying his clerk Bob Cratchit enough coals to keep warm, sending the Subscription Gentlemen away without a halfpence while opining that the poor should die, "to reduce the surplus population," and rebuffing his dead sister's only child, his nephew, Fred, for trying to bring Christmas cheer into his life, even throwing away Fred's gift without so much as considering what it may contain. Through all this, Gregory's snide and outspoken intensity sends chills down our spine. Who could be so heartless? Well, on second thought, there are no end to Scrooges in every contemporary city and hamlet (e.g., It's a Wonderful Life, with an antagonist matching Scrooge's archetype of the heartless money lender).

Luckily, we have Brian Vaughn's wonderfully warm and thoughtful Bob Cratchit to help disperse the cloud of nastiness that hovers over Scrooge and precipitates gloom in all directions. Dickens provides Cratchit with a number of heartfelt monologues—homilies, really—by which the great writer makes his case for the true meaning of Christmas, and Vaughn holds us rapt, as we absorb these exquisite passages. Fred (Jim Poulos) is another indefatigable cheerful fellow and, in Poulos' hands, shows his delight at showering his uncle with good will.

Scrooge appears irredeemable until, the night before Christmas, he is visited by the ghost of his deceased partner, Jacob Marley (Jeffrey Roark). This year, the sudden appearances of Marley's apparition, first at the door to Scrooge's apartment, and then up through the floor, seem particularly explosive and scary. Roark roars, while slamming Marley's chains to great effect, as he delivers some of Dickens' strong medicine on the subject of business versus humanity, while the Phantoms accompanying Marley mercilessly hound him and Scrooge, sending the story into another dimension.

Grace Morgan as Belle and Jim Poulos as Ebenezer the Young Man
Grace Morgan as Belle and
Jim Poulos as Ebenezer the Young Man,
with Scrooge watching his younger self
Photo: AdamsVisCom
Magic makes an entrance in the form of the Ghost of Christmas Past (Latoya Cameron), a majestic, erudite spirit who doles out some tough love to Scrooge, as she conducts him through a series of emblematic events from his childhood and youth, beginning with a classroom scene. This is the first scene in which we see Gregory's Scrooge break from his steely façade and show that there is a heart inside this archetypal miser. It is a fitting place for this to happen, as it speaks directly to Scrooge's wounded inner child. Nice performances by the kids, Ebenezer the Child (Jack Eller) and Fan, Scrooge's Sister (Olivia Sullivent), whose haunting solo carol freezes the moment in time.

Michael Fitzpatrick as Fezziwig and Leslie O'Carroll as Mrs. Fezziwig
Michael Fitzpatrick as Fezziwig and
Leslie O'Carroll as Mrs. Fezziwig
Photo: AdamsVisCom
Next we move to a couple of scenes with Ebenezer the Young Man (Poulos), at his first job, with Fezziwig (Michael Fitzpatrick). Fitzpatrick has owned this role for a number of years and he continues to bring such joy and gaity to it, along with his hilarious wife (Leslie O'Carroll), that they epitomize the joie de vivre which Dickens sought to bring to Christmas and everyday life. O'Carroll never fails to send the audience into hysterics with her "arias."

The story then, once again, turns serious, as Ebenezer the Young Man meets Belle (Grace Morgan). Their sweet courtship and engagement is short-lived, as Ebenezer's focus turns to money, as Belle so deftly puts it:

"Another idol has displaced me; and if it can cheer and comfort you in time to come, as I would have tried to do, I have no just cause to grieve."

"What Idol has displaced you?" he rejoined.

"A golden one."

Morgan is translucent as she tries to break through Ebenezer's "fear of the world," but to no avail. The older Scrooge (Gregory) watches in horror at his mistake, calling out to his younger self to turn around.

Finally, the ghost shows Scrooge what became of Belle, where Dickens makes his point about her family's happiness that overrides their modest means.

Sam Gregory as Ebenezer Scrooge and Wayne W. Pretlow as Ghost of Christmas Present
Sam Gregory as Ebenezer Scrooge and
Wayne W. Pretlow as Ghost of Christmas Present
Photo: AdamsVisCom
As the Ghost of Christmas Past dissipates, the memories she conjured swirl around Scrooge as he is whirled back to his bed, only to arise, by the chimes of Big Ben, to greet (with Gregory at his comical best) the Ghost of Christmas Present (Wayne W. Pretlow). Pretlow's joviality wins the day, amplified by his incredibly lush costume (Kevin Copenhaver) and the cornucopia of riches that deck his sleigh (Vicki Smith). But this ghost is as equally pointed in his tough love as his predecessor, showing Scrooge how he is perceived by those most closely associated with him—his nephew Fred (Poulos) and Bob Cratchit (Vaughn).

As Fred and his wife (Morgan)—How is that for exquisite double-casting: Poulos and Morgan as Ebenezer the Young Man and Belle, and as Fred and his wife!—and their friends gather for holiday cheer, Scrooge overhears their disdain and pity for him and his closed heart.

Alternating with this series of scenes, is a series in the Cratchits' home, again showing a family that is poor in the material sense, but rich in the spiritual sense—Bob Cratchit (Vaughn), Mrs. Cratchit (Cameron), Martha (Kyra Lindsay), Peter (Kevin Curtis), Belinda (Helen Reichert), Edward (Owen Zitek), and Tiny Tim (Augie Reichert)—with heartwarming camaraderie and heartfelt love; but they also echo the remarks in Fred's scenes. Here, Scrooge (Gregory) expresses further remorse, as well as a growing concern for his deceased sister's son, Fred, and for Tiny Tim's well-being. Like the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present quotes Scrooge's own words—reminding him of the contempt he has shown for others, including his remarks regarding the poor, who should die, so as to "reduce the surplus population"—and makes him confront the children he has created: Ignorance and Want.

Sam Gregory as Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas morning
Sam Gregory as Ebenezer Scrooge,
on Christmas morning
Photo: AdamsVisCom
As these children are carried away by Phantoms, Scrooge immmediately faces the deathly visage of the Ghost of Christmas Future, who introduces him to the spectre of events—including the lack of caring by anyone towards his own death, and the spiritual bonding of the Cratchits around the spectre of Tiny Tim's death—that follow from Scrooge's careless attitudes and uncaring behavior. At this point, Scrooge is beside himself, begging for a second chance.

Finally, Dickens climaxes Scrooge' epiphany on Christmas morning, where the usurer makes good on his promises, with Gregory delivering a stream of good tidings and generous deeds.

Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.

He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!

The Denver Center Theatre Company's presentation of A Christmas Carol runs through December 24th. For tickets: https://www.denvercenter.org/shows/, or 303-893-4100.

Bob Bows



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