Theater Review: ‘Christmas Carol’ stays faithful to original

Jamie Horton as Ebenezer Scrooge in the Northern Stage production of

Jamie Horton as Ebenezer Scrooge in the Northern Stage production of "A Christmas Carol" in White River Junction, Vt. The play runs through Dec. 31, 2023. (Kata Sasvari photograph) Kata Sasvari photograph

Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper as the Ghost of Christmas Present in the Northern Stage production of

Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper as the Ghost of Christmas Present in the Northern Stage production of "A Christmas Carol" in White River Junction, Vt. The play run through Dec. 31, 2023. (Kata Sasvari photograph) —

The cast dances in the Northern Stage production of

The cast dances in the Northern Stage production of "A Christmas Carol" in White River Junction, Vt. The play continues through Dec. 31, 2023. (Kata Sasvari photograph) —


For the Valley News

Published: 11-30-2023 3:08 AM

Ah, yes, “A Christmas Carol,” a quintessential wintertime tale that reminds us what the holidays are truly about: sending ghosts to guilt trip your mean relatives into coming to dinner.

This season, Northern Stage debuts a fresh take on Charles Dickens’ 1843 fable, adapted and directed by Carol Dunne, the White River Junction-based company’s producing artistic director. The show clocks in at almost two hours, including a 15-minute intermission, making it a pleasantly succinct affair that, if you attend a 2 p.m. show, will see you out just in time to enjoy a crisp winter sunset.

So what makes this newest flavor of “A Christmas Carol” stand out from the countless variations over the years? Well, one facet of its success is its faithfulness to the original text. Few stories have been remixed and remade as much as this one. Whether it’s been animated, told using Muppets characters, with a Jim Carrey Scrooge or a Daffy Duck one, a prequel, a comedy, a musical, a series, a miniseries or “An All Dogs Christmas Carol,” there is a version of this nearly 200-year-old story for just about anyone, including your pet.

Dunne’s script is tight and well-balanced, and while the beginning of the production is slow, it contains just enough discomfort within Scrooge’s off-putting nature that the audience’s attention is captured and sustained. The elements of the original tale that make it great — the darkness, the stringent self-reflection and burgeoning self-realization, the emergence of hope, warmth and humor — are all kept intact by retaining much of the novella’s original lines.

This adherence to the book’s story is well-supplemented by narration from industrial-era workers in the foreground, which in turn allows the textual voice of Charles Dickens to travel with the audience through the production. A notable deviation from the novella is the few interspersed musical breaks, where cast members perform traditional holiday songs, but they are short, well-executed and haunting.

The matinee performance on Sunday included a surprise change in casting. Gordon Clapp, the Emmy-winning actor who appeared in “NYPD Blue” and Broadway’s “To Kill A Mockingbird,” was absent. His role as the ghost of Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s deceased business partner, was filled by Dunne herself, and Joshua Davis replaced him as Clapp’s secondary character of “businessman.”

Jamie Horton, however, hailed by Dunne in the program as “one of the finest actors to appear on our stage” and who has amassed myriad theater, film and TV credits, including Steven Spielberg’s 2012 movie “Lincoln,” was unabashedly present as “human Grinch” Ebenezer Scrooge. Though most will be familiar with Scrooge’s famous character arc, Horton establishes a character so robustly and believably entrenched in his ways that the audience feels reinvested in a familiar story and willing to see out such a cloistered man’s metamorphosis.

Other noteworthy performances include Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper, who pulls off an absolutely superb Scottish accent as the venerable Ghost of Christmas Present, Max Samuels as Scrooge’s nephew Fred, and Dunne, script in hand for her last-minute appearance as Marley’s ghost, reminding us all why she’s the one in charge. Least surprising is the heart-wrenchingly adorable Tiny Tim, played on Sunday by Olive Looby, who rides around on the shoulder of Kevin James Thomas’s Robert Cratchit like a very sweet and companionable bird.

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Lighting designer Amina Alexander impresses with timely cues and bare, but effective, illumination that adds the right amount of supernatural mystique to the sequences that include the Spirits. The industrial-style set by scenic designer David L. Arsenault compromises crossbars, beams and metal pipes colored teal and wraps around the stage’s platform. On a plaque in the main lobby of Northern Stage’s Barrette Center for the Arts, audience members are privy to behind-the-scenes photos and early conceptions of the set. The thinking behind the circular nature of the scaffolding becomes clear when reading how inspiration was drawn from Victorian-era gas tank holders and from the design of bird cages — “a way to show how Scrooge, and the world, was physically and metaphorically trapped within.”

Another feature of Dickens’ tale that becomes amplified and ultimately integral in this production is the importance of a strong community. The company includes 18 children from Northern Stage’s education programs who alternate roles in the play as “Team Green” or “Team Red” so each group can perform four shows a week instead of eight. Dunne, as quoted in the program, hopes that the “introduction of community members of all ages” will make “A Christmas Carol” at Northern Stage a family tradition.” And while it would be all too easy to rely on the soulful charm of the participating children to capture the audience’s affections, this production manages to cultivate a heart of its own.

The redemption arc of Ebenezer Scrooge is all too relevant in an era characterized by obscene tech-driven wealth, the profiteers of which (Musk, Bezos, to name but two) could do with a good “Scrooging.” The divide between classes has never been at such a distance, and though Dickens’ enduring narrative aptly brings that to light, it also reminds us that we needn’t stray far to find true connection. In fact, what we truly desire may have been in front of us the whole time.

And though Scrooge required a premonition of his eventual demise to realize that he needed to nurture and cherish the relationships in his life, my hope is that just seeing “A Christmas Carol” will be enough for the rest of us.

Northern Stage’s production of “A Christmas Carol” runs through Dec. 31 at the Barrette Center of the Arts in White River Junction. For tickets and more information, go to or call 802-296-7000.

Caoimhe Markey is a freelance writer. She lives in Woodstock.