Theatre Calgary’s A Christmas Carol continues to delight audiences, old and new

I have to admit that I overdosed on A Christmas Carol in my youth. After having seen more than 12 of the 31 incarnations of the production at Theatre Calgary, I realized quite abruptly one day that I had had enough. It suddenly became my beloved annual holiday tradition to try to avoid even seeing an advertisement for it.

Former Theatre Calgary artistic director Dennis Garnhum crafted a new adaptation in 2011, and the word on the street was that the staging was thoroughly different. I toyed with the idea of going back. But Christmases came and went, and I stayed away. This year, the tantalizing offer to stay up all night long writing a review presented itself, and there I was, surrounded again by children dressed up in their holiday best, shrieking in anticipation of an afternoon at the theatre.

Of course, the central component is still the same — Stephen Hair as Ebenezer Scrooge. He’s been the constant in the varying adaptations over the last 24 years, and it seems entirely comfortable to see him in that role again, but his portrayal this year is gentler and subtler than I remember it. Rather than being an iconic symbol of rampant materialism, Scrooge is just a guy whose perfectly honest choices in life have led him to a place he didn’t expect. His transformation in the end is all the more delightful as a result.

The large cast of 24 are a well-oiled machine, as one would expect from a company that changes only slightly from year to year. It appears that there have been minor tweaks in the staging over the past handful of years as well, but Garnhum’s adaptation remains bright and fanciful, with anachronistic elements that enhance the supernatural theme. The vibrancy of this production owes much to the set and costume design of Patrick Clark, who has created a memorable dreamscape for Scrooge to inhabit over the course of his transformative Christmas Eve. Also, it’s a musical now, for heaven’s sake, and the Christmas carols alone are enough to drag the Scroogiest audience into the holiday spirit.

The text stays closer to the original source material than previous versions, and this makes the dialogue somewhat more challenging. It’s a small complaint, but some of the performers lack assertiveness with the text, and their lines are occasionally lost in a 19th century run-on sentence. Since most of us would recognize the plot and characters if the play were presented in Klingon, that isn’t a major concern, but it is a little distracting.

After the show, Hair remains on stage to make the annual pitch for Toonies for Turkeys, a 21-year tradition in which the actors mingle in the lobby with baskets to collect donations for the Calgary Interfaith Food Bank. He starts by asking how many of the audience are seeing A Christmas Carol for the first time. There were an impressive number of rookies in the audience on this day, and I envy them this first experience of the stage play, but this production is fresh enough that even I feel a bit of a newbie. It’s a nice feeling.

Theatre Calgary’s A Christmas Carol runs at the Max Bell Theatre until Dec. 24, tickets and info available on their website.

Lori Montgomery is a former FFWD theatre critic who practices medicine to support her writing habit.