Anniversary production of 'A Christmas Carol' filled with spirit

By Bridgette M. Redman

Thirty is a good age for Meadow Brook Theatre's "A Christmas Carol." The grand old lady of Christmas plays has aged well upon their stage, and the production is more alluringly beautiful than ever.

The cast and crew at Meadow Brook have banished all the dangers that can accompany a performance of the Charles Dickens classic. Dangers such as falling into stereotyped performances of what are now stock characters. Dangers such as allowing the pace to drag or overstuffing one's mouth with the poetic text of the author. Dangers such as attempting to do cheaply such things as costumes, effects or sets. Meadow Brook's "A Christmas Carol" falls prey to none of these things in their two-hour production that flies by on the shoulders of highly talented actors beautifully attired on a set that could make "Les Mis" designers applaud.

It helps that they have had 30 years of producing this classic and what must now be a large collection of costumes, props and a highly effective stage design. Nor have they allowed the work to grow stale. There was an energy and excitement present in every member of a cast far larger than what is ever seen on today's professional stages, even for musicals.

Thomas D. Mahard opened this season having performed in "A Christmas Carol" 1,081 times at Meadow Brook Theatre. In this production, he is Ebenezer Scrooge, the miser who makes famous the phrase "Bah! Humbug!" His Scrooge is wickedly stingy and filled with hate toward his fellow man. His greed has no limit, nor does the enthusiasm with which Mahard plays the role. He is fully present in the role, reacting with anger to well wishers, fear to the ghosts and, throughout it all, revealing the humanity and animation that makes it clear why his former partner, Jacob Marley, thought he was still worth saving.

Director and Stage Manager Terry Carpenter, who has been with the show for all of its 30 years, provides a pacing that can leave the audience surprised to learn that two hours have passed at the end of the show. The chorus of townspeople, children and Londoners move with a choreography that generates thematic focus in every scene - and that's even before they start dancing. In those scenes, Dance Master Meredith Gifford takes Jan Puffer's original choreography to create an old-fashioned Christmas fantasia that seduces even the elder Scrooge himself.

Carpenter's tremendous attention to detail ensures that the actors and the words of the playwright are constantly supported. When Paul Hopper as the Spirit of Christmas Present begins describing the delicacies of Christmas being sold by vendors in the streets of London, he is surrounded by the townspeople who carry sticks hung with grapes and boxes laden with edible goodies. Hopper turns what could be a dull monologue into one that sparkles and entrances.

Peter Hicks scenic design contributes to the show's excellent pacing with the huge two-story set that rotates and unfolds to create a multitude of fully staged settings, all with their own character and flavor. Add to that the effects of fog, sudden explosions perfectly timed with Reid Johnson's lighting design, falling snow and pits that open up from the bottom of the stage and Meadow Brook gives new meaning to the term "high production values."

With the full commitment and sheer energetic joy of every actor and crew, "A Christmas Carol" easily demonstrates why the Dickens classic has survived so long on the Meadow Brook stage and still plays to packed houses. It is a production that embodies all the best of Christmas Spirit and invites all to participate in a Christmas where people bear their responsibilities for their fellow man with enthusiasm and practice gratitude for even the tiniest of blessings.

Here's to another 30 years!

REVIEW:

'A Christmas Carol'

Meadow Brook Theatre, 2200 N. Squirrel Road, Rochester. Thursday-Sunday through Dec. 23, plus various Tuesday and Wednesdays. $25-40. 248-370-3316. http://www.mbtheatre.com

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