The Broadway Theatre Review: A Christmas Carol
An abrupt crash leads us into the pitch-black darkness of the Nederlander Theatre. A voice beacons us to sit up and lean into this one-man version of Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, adapted by its star performer, Jefferson Mays (Broadway’s Oslo; The Music Man), alongside Susan Lions (I Am My Own Wife; assoc. director of May/international tours), and director Michael Arden (Broadway/Deaf West’s Spring Awakening). As he did before, in the 2020 filming of this traditional Christmas story, Mays, the man of a thousand faces and characterizations, candle-lights the way, engaging and enticing us forward with his infallible charm, into the unique and somewhat engaging telling of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas, commonly known as A Christmas Carol. A novella, first published in 1843, it recounts the tale and transformation of an elderly miser, Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge. He is as well-known a character to the masses as Jacob Marley’s ghost, the deceased former business partner, who comes a-knocking on Scrooge’s door late one Christmas Eve, dragging his chains and sad soul for a fireside chat. In hopes of giving him the gift of redemption.
Mays, as he does, dives in with a quirky force. He’s the man at the center, playing the iconic Scrooge with a scorn that resonates, as well as every other character he comes in contact with on his epic journey through his past, present, and future Christmases. Delivering Dickens’ tale with a clever solitary presence that is quite astonishing, to say the least, he finds intrigue and interest in most moments, but sadly not all. Almost completely engulfed by the dark shadows that envelop the stage, thanks to the strong production design conceived by Arden and set and costume designer Dane Laffrey (Broadway’s Once on This Island), along with lighting by the talented Ben Stanton (Broadway’s The Rose Tattoo), Scrooge, as played most wisely by Mays, is as solitary as a rotten oyster, void of the pearl that might give it some beauty. He draws us in, shifting effortlessly from Uncle to nephew with an ease that hypnotizes. He climbs up the rotating stairs in the cold darkness of his dwelling, eager to bring us to the moment when the chains that bind us rattle and clang their way in with melancholy and fear.
A Christmas Carol has gotten off to a grand good start, breaking the mold and laying the groundwork for something truly special to spiral forward. But for some reason, when Marley takes a seat, the elegant structuring falters, disengaging us from its meticulously crafted web. The piece slows down and stumbles, even when the shadows of Christmases past dance in the warm glow of Scrooge’s former employer. It’s beautifully staged, I will say that wholeheartedly, with laughter and dancing echoing miraculously throughout the darkness, thanks to sound designer Joshua D. Reid (Signature’s Jerry Springer: The Opera) and projections by Lucy MacKinnon (Broadway’s Kimberly Akimbo), but the heralding of the three unique spirits, the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet to Come doesn’t sing with the magical illusions that it did when I watched the filmed version back in 2020. It was a joint project between TBD Pictures, La Jolla Playhouse, and On The Stage, and when I first saw it, I thought it was the most exemplary telling to go down those snowy lanes of Dickens’ classic. It was A Christmas Carol unlike any other I’ve ever been witness to, filmed live on stage at New York’s United Palace, chosen by the crew in order to “preserve the power of the theatrical storytelling.” And indeed, it did just that. with a grand flourish, courtesy of the director of photography, Maceo Bishop (Uncut Gems), unfolding the tale with a wise aplomb, delivering a well-needed outcome known to pretty much all of us.
So it is in the telling of that tale where the intrigue lies nowadays, and within this meticulous staging, the magnificently clever Jefferson Mays flinches, angles, and deforms himself to try to recreate dynamic representations at every turn. He floats in with a clear-minded sense of purpose, playing over fifty roles in what can only be described as a master class of theatrical precision. He’s worthy to be Dickens’ partner in this telling in every way, delivering a thousand hopes and joys in every facial grimace that you have never seen the like of before. Unfortunately, when the red velvet curtain pulls back or when the set piece drops down, showcasing all those delicately arranged panoramas, some of which almost feel pointless, something is missing, an essence that wasn’t missing on video. They are pretty pictures; very lovely to look at, but some of them come and go so quickly without ever being utilized or engaged with. Like the sumptuousness of the dropped in Christmas present, or the white wonderland we are left with. But more particularly, it is in the showcasing of the simple family Cratchit Christmas dinner that is lovingly staged and told, but what is missing is watching how it affects old man Scrooge. There’s a disconnect from the main man and the meaning of what is happening before him. And even though the final moments brought a lump to my throat, as it always does and should, all those meticulously staged moments in the middle felt somewhat distant, dulled, and disengaged from my soul.
For a one-man telling of this iconic tale, Mays is working it out like a pro, finding ever-changing moments of connection with Scrooge and all those who come in contact with him that Christmas Eve night. I won’t give it away, but that final act visitor and how he emerges from the shadows is mind-blowingly amazing. It’s theatrical magic at its best, which can also be said about the whole, in terms of visuals and Mays’ performance. But I think I’d rather watch the streamed film version of the same A Christmas Carol from 2020 starring Mays, or maybe the numerous other tellings, like the 2019 dark British series starring Guy Pierce, or even the Muppets’ retelling (which is phenomenal in its own right), rather than find myself losing interest midway in this current Broadway production. I found more engagement with the heart and soul in those filmed productions, even with all the wonder and magic that found its way onto this Broadway stage.