Hartford Stage's 'A Christmas Carol' remains, vivid, lively, intoxicating

Ah, the sights and smells of “A Christmas Carol.”

The snow is still falling on the audience. You can still smell the smoke when the Spirit of Christmas Present makes her grand misty entrance. The nooses and daggers that decorate the hellish apparitions who guide Scrooge through a night of dark self-analysis still glow brightly in the dark.

Keeping a show like this fresh and lively is no small feat. Visually, “A Christmas Carol” is as vivid as it ever was. The sets don’t look worn. The costumes haven’t faded. The characters don’t seem tired or cold. There’s an intoxicating brightness to the whole show, even when it takes scary, sinister, dark turns.

Acting-wise, it hasn’t taken long for Hartford Stage’s hallowed holiday treat “A Christmas Carol — A Ghost Story of Christmas” to find its groove again, following the departure of long-serving Scrooge Bill Raymond and several other longtime cast members a couple of seasons ago. This season’s cast has the same key players as last season who have comfortably settled into their roles.

Some of the liveliness is due to the younger cast members — Hartt School students in some of the townsfolk roles, as well as over a dozen children. At Saturday evening’s performance, Hartt student Reid Williams had to assume the roles of Fred (Scrooge’s nephew) and Scrooge at 30, usually performed by Terrell Donnell Sledge, and fit in beautifully, deftly executing the sight gag where he must pull a chair out from under the (invisible) Scrooge in a party scene. Hartt classmate Mark Lawrence earns big laughs as a tipsy Mr. Topper.

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In just his second season in the central role of Ebenezer Scrooge, Michael Preston is now more fully embodying this complicated character. He’s much more commanding in the early, penny-pinching scenes of the play. Yes, he juggles a bit — Preston famously served for a decade in the Flying Karamazov Brothers comedy troupe. More to the point, Preston distances himself from some of the signature bits that Bill Raymond built up over the years. Preston doesn’t jangle keys or hop down staircases. He’s creating his own bits of business. He has a great way of collapsing flabbergasted into a chair.

A couple of other relatively recent newcomers to the cast bring a quintessential jolliness to this “Christmas Carol.” John-Andrew Morrison, who took over the role of the inventive street vendor Mr. Marvel from Preston when he became the new Scrooge, is a wonderfully ingratiating presence, as is Kenneth De Abrew as Mr. Fezziwig.

Hartford Stage has designed its “Christmas Carol” to be an artistic feast, demonstrating all the magic that theater can bring to a story. There are dazzling special effects, from harsh bright lights to wafting hellfire. There’s cross-gender and color-blind casting. Christmas carols are sung in harmony. There’s flying.

Oh, one can always nitpick. A boy is sent to fetch a turkey “as big as me,” and returns with one that is way smaller than himself. But all is forgiven when Scrooge takes that turkey and balances it on his chin. A heavy-handed attempt to link the performers playing the street vendors to their other roles as the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come finds them responding to Scrooge’s earnest entreaty to come to his Christmas gathering with cackles and an evil laughs. Such a horrific reaction to his party invite might perturb the old miser had he not just become such a lovable old coot.

Dickensian dramaturgy aside, Hartford Stage’s “A Christmas Carol” has many fun, sharp, carefully crafted moments of Christmas cheer, plus some thrilling ghostly twists. It continues to captivate, and deserves to have become a decades-long Hartford Christmas tradition.

A CHRISTMAS CAROL — A GHOST STORY OF CHRISTMAS runs through Dec. 29 at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford. Performances are Friday at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday at 2 and 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday at 2 p.m.; with additional evening performances Dec. 13, 20, 23 and 26 at 7:30 p.m.; and extra matinees Dec. 24, 26 and 27 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $25 to $90. hartfordstage.org.

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