If you’re going to see a production of A Christmas Carol in the Bay Area this year, it ought to be from A.C.T. Its annual production is a treat for the senses. James Carpenter takes the stage for his twelfth year as Scrooge in the Geary Theater. No matter how many times you’ve seen Dickens’ classic Christmas story, A.C.T.’s show is beautiful, touching and surprising.
First of all, Carpenter is a perfect Ebenezer Scrooge. He’s on par with iconic actors of the role like Alastair Sim and Patrick Stewart. He’s convincing at the beginning of the show as a penny-pinching miser clutching his moneybox to his chest and continues to be so through the end as his heart thaws. You slowly see the transformation in his expressions and movements. He lights up with remembered happiness during the visit from the Ghost of Christmas Past to the extent that he looks like another person.
Each of the four ghosts is distinct and memorable. The Ghost of Christmas Past floats in on a lighted swing and Present glides around with confidence and gravity. However, it’s the spookier Marley and Ghost of Christmas Future who steal the show. The inventive way that the Future is presented took my breath away. It’s such a surprise that I don’t want to say too much, but it is definitely the best stage presentation of the ghost that I have seen.
Then there’s the first, often discounted ghost, Scrooge’s deceased partner Jacob Marley. It’s no surprise that Ken Ruta, who played Scrooge at A.C.T. from 1989-91, is fabulous. After all, he has performed on the Geary stage in more than 60 productions and spent a lot of time on Broadway. He commands attention every moment that he is on stage. Once you know the story, it’s easy to discount how scary dealing with actual ghosts would be for Scrooge. However with Ruta rattling his chains at the terror-stricken Carpenter, it’s easy to understand the shocking nature of the moment.
Like every year, A.C.T.’s production features young actors in various roles throughout the show. It’s a delight to see young actors performing with one of the Bay Area’s biggest theater companies. So if one or two lines aren’t so audible at the back of the house, you still get the point. One young actor particularly stands out as someone to watch for in the future. Audrey Thacher, in the role of Want, is only on stage briefly in a role that often gets cut out of stage and film adaptations of the story. Despite all this, she really makes an impression and makes the brief appearance of Want and Ignorance memorable.
There are a few songs scattered throughout the show, which I believe to be the only questionable aspect of the production. There aren’t enough songs for it to really be considered a musical. However, since the songs add to the plot, it is not a “play with music” either. Frankly, the show would be stronger without the music, or if the original songs were replaced with traditional Christmas Carols.
A.C.T.’s A Christmas Carol is the definitive Bay Area live show of the holiday season. It adds something beyond what you get from watching the classic tale on film and is great whether you see it once or every year.
A Christmas Carol runs through December 24, 2017 at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco. Tickets range from $17.50 - $110, with discounts available for groups of 15 or more.
Photos courtesy of Kevin Berne