Charles Dickens was one of the most famous authors of his era, a literary superstar who enchanted countless readers and inspired as many storytellers during the Victorian era. His books still resonate with modern audiences – just think how many times “Oliver Twist,” “Great Expectations” and “A Tale of Two Cities” have been adapted or reinterpreted in the last century.
But it’s “A Christmas Carol” that remains Dickens’ most recognized and widely read work, a novella that blends the supernatural with holiday cheer that has been the source of dozens – maybe even hundreds – of staged versions since its 1843 publication. This weekend, Spokane Civic Theatre premiered their large-scale interpretation of the 1994 Broadway musical take on “A Christmas Carol,” and the show is a lot of spirited fun. Helmed by Civic’s artistic director Keith Dixon, it’s the kind of holiday entertainment that remains effective despite the familiarity of the story.
The show doesn’t stray too far from the novella’s original structure. It begins on Christmas Eve as the elderly, miserly moneylender Ebenezer Scrooge (Thomas Heppler) begrudgingly allows his sole employee Bob Cratchit (Corey Dlask) to have the next day off to spend with his family, including his sickly son Tiny Tim (Noelle Fries). Everyone in Scrooge’s village is imbued with the Christmas spirit, and he practically has to fight off the beggars with his cane (spouting off a “bah, humbug!” here and there) on his way home that evening.
After turning in for the night, Scrooge is haunted by the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley (Lawrence Jones), who informs Scrooge that he’ll be visited by three more spirits – the Ghosts of Christmas Past (Heidi Santiago), Present (Charles Fletcher) and Yet to Come (Lisa Miller).
The show’s score is by the great Alan Menken, who has won eight Oscars for his music in Disney classics like “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast,” and Lynn Ahrens. Although it doesn’t have any songs as memorable as the ones from those films, there are some terrific numbers, including the tender ballad “A Place Called Home” and the “Master of the House”-style showstopper “Mr. Fezziwig’s Annual Christmas Ball.” At a fleet two hours (including intermission), the show moves along a brisk pace – it doesn’t really have time to slow down and let the energy level flag.
A production of this size is always a gamble on a stage the size of the Civic’s. In fact, the cast contains nearly 50 people, which is one of the biggest in the theater’s history. On opening night, there were a few technical hiccups – a piece of the set, a beautiful expressionist town square designed by David Baker, came crashing down during a scene change, and there were a few issues with the singers’ microphones cutting in and out. But Dixon and his crew pulled off the show, and considering the amount of pyrotechnics involved, this is an impressive, visually striking production (the entrance of the Ghost of Christmas Past, for instance, is a stunning moment of theatricality).
The huge cast really works wonders with this material. Santiago, Fletcher and Miller are a lot of fun as the three ghosts, and Fries has some lovely, heartbreaking moments as Tiny Tim. But it’s Heppler’s work as Scrooge that really keeps all of the elements of “A Christmas Carol: The Musical” hanging together. It’s difficult to convey Scrooge’s transformation in a believable way – he goes from the world’s biggest curmudgeon to a fervent ambassador for Christmas spirit in a matter of hours – but he pulls it off. The whole thing is infectious: Even if you go into the theater a Scrooge, you’ll leave a Tiny Tim.