ArtsReviewTheatre

Comforting old tradition gets a delightful new look with Theatre Calgary’s updated A Christmas Carol

I grudgingly admit that there’s something comforting about a tradition like A Christmas Carol. For more than three decades, the Theatre Calgary production has been the linchpin of their season, a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. I concede that in past years, that very fact has elicited a certain amount of slightly elitist scorn from me, but I’m now a convert. As the children in the row behind me chattered away before the show, listing for their mother which characters and which scenes they couldn’t wait to see, I gave over to the comfort-food appeal of the play. 

At the same time, it’s also nice that every few years, the company shakes it up a bit and tries on a new look. This year, with a new script by Geoffrey Simon Brown, all-new design and staging by director Stafford Arima, and many new faces in the cast, it’s almost unrecognizable.

Thankfully, Stephen Hair is back as Scrooge for the 26th time, and I’m frankly happy to see him keep doing it until he can’t actually ambulate across the stage without assistance. For the truly committed among us who have seen at least half of those incarnations, his performance has evolved over time, but there is a beautiful consistency to his initial crankiness and his eventual delighted transformation. 

Virtually everything else is new, and I must say, the children behind me weren’t entirely thrilled. Like me, they found the new costumes for the ghosts a bit over-the-top. The Ghost of Christmas Past looks like an iridescent porcupine with horns, but her flight through the streets of London, assisted by all-new projections, was genuinely spectacular. She is played here for the first time by Jamie Tognazzini, plagued by some technical difficulties on the day I saw the show, but still able to bring a new and exciting physicality to the role. 

The Ghost of Christmas Present, characterized in the book by images of joy and plenty, is here imagined as an enormous rolling homage to Carmen Miranda. Marshall Vielle (Natay’ao’tako) is another new face in the ensemble, and he does manage to transcend the cartoonish design in order to deliver the spirit’s dire warning for Tiny Tim’s future. But this spirit is meant to leave on an even more sombre note, after introducing the children of Man, Ignorance and Want, and it’s hard to effectively portend doom when you’re covered in plastic produce. 

A face familiar to TC audiences as a previous Ghost of Christmas Past, Allison Lynch is now composer and music director, haunting the background as a very effective, ethereal Greek chorus. The sound design often drowns out her mournful fiddle monologues, which is a shame, but when they are featured, they provide a lovely thread through the play’s time-travelling action. 

Arima’s staging fills every inch of the space, and in fact at times I wished the stage (one of the biggest in town) were slightly larger. The projections are elaborate and effective, but the sets are simpler than in past years, leaving room for the focus to remain on the text. Unfortunately, it feels as if the spotlight has been very much on the technical innovations this year, and now that there is a design that should last a few years, I’m hoping for more attention to be paid to character next time around.  

Brown’s new script is anachronistic at times, but does maintain much of the source material. There are some earnest modern speeches that I could have done without (“It’s important to feel sad and angry about things we’d like to change,” and a lengthy speech about the interconnectedness of all people, for a start), but he also highlights some details from the book that are often ignored or glossed over in stage productions. The children behind me recognized enough of the scenes and dialogue that they could be delighted by the familiarity of it, but also had a few new ideas to fuel a vigorous debate during intermission. And really, what else do you want from your Christmas tradition? 

(Photo of Graham Percy, left, and Stephen Hair courtesy Trudie Lee.)

A Christmas Carol runs at Theatre Calgary until Dec. 28. For tickets and showtimes please go to https://www.theatrecalgary.com/.

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

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