When the lights come up on Metropolis Performing Arts Centre's production of "A Christmas Carol," they reveal Bob Cratchit's family sitting around their dining room table.
That's a jolt for theater-goers accustomed to the traditional version of the show. It represents a radical re-working of the script by Scott Woldman, resident playwright at Metropolis Performing Arts Centre in Arlington Heights, where the show runs through Dec. 24.
The production has some fine acting, music, singing and dancing. The most notable thing about it, however, is the new script, which has some strengths as well as weaknesses.
Woldman's version makes Bob Cratchit the occasional narrator and uses his narrations as an organizing framework for the story. The opening scene establishes him as telling Scrooge's tale to the Cratchit clan. The action dissolves to traditional scenes of the familiar Scrooge story, but the script periodically checks back in with narrator Bob for summaries or comments.
This story structure has advantages--mostly in shaving unneeded scenes off the running time and giving the delightful Andrew Pond, as Cratchit, a larger role. It also has disadvantages. Because so much of the story is told to us, rather than shown to us, it doesn't pack the same emotional punch.
That shows up most noticeably in the show's final scene.
For any version of 'A Christmas Carol' to work, it must establish the depth of Scrooge's hard-heartedness and miserliness in order to provide the catharsis of his polar-opposite transformation to a kind, generous soul.
In Woldman's version, however, we don't get to see Scrooge's delirious giddiness when he wakes up on Christmas morning delighted not only to be alive, but to find he still has time to change for the better. Woldman's version goes right from the Ghost of Christmas To Come's frightening visit to having Scrooge arrive at the Cratchits' home to display his generosity and good wishes in a heartfelt redemption; but it all unfolds so briefly that we don't have time to process the full emotional impact of Scrooge's newfound heart. Even the goose-delivery boy, who announces Scrooge's gift of Christmas food, hurriedly delivers too-scant information about what miracle has happened to the old man.
Other parts of the script feel rushed, too, particularly the early scene in Scrooge's office which establishes how nastily he treats his clerk Cratchit.
Director Brad Dunn succeeds in establishing an ensemble feel for the talented cast, but needs to work on some pacing issues. Act One rushes through Scrooge's cruelty in his older years, his relationship with his sister Fran in his younger years, and Fezziwig's party, in which he meets — and later spurns — the love of his life, Belle, played by Megan M. Storti, who sings beautifully.
Those issues disappear in Act Two, where the flow follows a more natural rhythm during the visits of the present and future ghosts. In particular, Dunn gives nephew Fred's party all the time it needs to evolve and become a treat for the audience.
Though Woldman's version of the play cuts down Scrooge's stage time a little, he still makes or breaks the play. Eamonn McDonagh, who plays the old skinflint, seems far more comfortable portraying the nice Scrooge. It may help McDonagh establish the character's irascibility in Act One if he could enunciate his lines better. They were often too muddled to be understood — and sometimes drowned out by the carolers. In the play's last scene, however, McDonagh transmitted the full force of Scrooge's love for mankind in an uplifting finale.
The space between early bad Scrooge and final good Scrooge is filled with many skilled performances, including Will Skrip, who has a fine tenor voice, as Fred, and Amy Rapp, who displayed graceful dance and movement as the Ghost of Christmas Past.
Co-music directors Ken McMullen and Micky York and choreographer Christie Kerr brought a lively dimension of musicality to the show, particularly in the party scenes.
The production has earnestness, and heart, and evokes tears and smiles, as Dickens intended. I saw the Nov. 27 show, and directors often make tweaks throughout the run, so it's possible subsequent shows will change for the better. I hope that's the case, because so many of the actors are throwing themselves into the show with a high level of professionalism. It has many moments of delight.