Hartford Stage's "A Christmas Carol — A Ghost Story of Christmas" is the gift that keeps on giving. Eighteen years after it first scared Scrooge into jolly, turkey-buying munificence, Michael Wilson's awe-striking adaptation continues to delight.
Because nobody likes a shopworn, secondhand gift, the show strives to retain a freshness and newness. The actors are unjaded, smiling and moving briskly through their roles. The sets are cleanly scrubbed. The show might be set in the Victorian era, like the Dickens classic on which it is based, but there's nothing musty or stuffy about it.
Changing times have caused slight changes in this annual presentation. The subtitular ghosts in this supernatural tale have morphed, for example, from dusty overdressed zombie types into sleek skeleton-masked ghouls. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is a model of "Steampunk," a Victorian/Industrial fantasy genre that barely existed when this show was first presented in 1998.
In fact, "A Christmas Carol — A Ghost Story of Christmas" is a celebratory showcase of all that is good about contemporary American regional theater. The special effects — flying wraiths! a rolling bed! — are matched by honest, human acting. There's singing and outlandish physical comedy. The large cast includes a corps of cute kids, running about the stage and screaming. Best of all, the production uses colorblind casting, startling scare tactics and drawn-out dramatic scenes to raise the bar for what's considered accessible "family-friendly" programming. There's a depth and dimension here that's lacking in so many other "Christmas Carol" productions.
There's no lack of spectacle in this lavish and layered adaptation of the Dickens story. Some interesting liberties are taken with the tale, including having the spirits that visit Scrooge be doppelgangers for the merchants whom he shakes down for rent money. This twist, similar to the "Wizard of Oz" movie, certainly doesn't hurt the dreamscape aspects of the play. It also helps younger audience members figure out the tricky concept of having one actor play several roles … though in a production that features a whopping 37 people onstage, many of them children, there's not an awful lot of multiple role-playing required.
The key character, of course, is Ebenezer Scrooge, and Hartford Stage has been fortunate to have the same extraordinary actor playing him for 16 of the production's 18 seasons. Bill Raymond has played a host of despicable yet roundly human characters in his long career. He was the mobster The Greek on HBO's "The Wire," the mad scientist Richard X. Toddhunter on the Stephen King miniseries "Golden Years" and one of the torture-happy townsfolk in Lars von Trier's film "Dogville." He was an ensemble member of the top-flight experimental theater troupes Mabou Mines and the RGDavis Mime Troupe, and has also worked with the Wooster Group. He's also a nimble comic actor, as seen in the Hartford Stage/Long Wharf Theatre co-production of "Moon for the Misbegotten," Long Wharf's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (as Bottom) and at Yale Repertory Theatre in Janusz Glowacki's "Antigone in New York" back in 1994. He's lightened up a lot of dark dramas, and Scrooge might be his defining role. He takes the character from "Bah! Humbug!" to a delirious Jackie Gleason-esque "Hummina hummina hummina." He clowns with props. He does pratfalls, but also warmly drops on one knee to profess his love for his fiancee Belle. His looks of astonishment are priceless.
The rest of the current cast rides the same waves of Victorian melodrama and Christmas spirit, with Noble Shropshire bringing the production in line with all the Christmas "pantomime" shows that glut London stages this time of year by donning a ragged dress to play housekeeper Mrs. Dilber in drag and later serving as the centerpiece of a phantasmagoric special effect as the chain-challenged Jacob Marley.
The production remains largely the same as it has been since the late '90s, on purpose. Wilson's original script and staging are secure. You don't mess with tradition. What distinguishes this production is the obvious and all-encompassing professional desire of everyone involved to keep the play as powerful, imposing and potent as a newly cut Christmas tree. God bless 'em, every one.
"A CHRISTMAS CAROL — A GHOST STORY OF CHRISTMAS" plays through Dec. 27 at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford. Performances are Wednesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. with added shows Dec. 20 at 7:30 p.m., Dec. 22 at 7:30 p.m. and Dec. 23 at 2 p.m. Running time is two hours, including intermission. Information: 860-527-5151, hartfordstage.org.