Bah humbug to A Christmas Carol: On the Air

Under Sarah Rodgers’s direction, the convention of the staged radio play gets murky

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      By Peter Church. Directed by Sarah Rodgers. A Pacific Theatre. At Pacific Theatre on Wednesday, December 9. Continues until January 2

      I haven’t been keeping close count, but this is approximately the four thousandth time I’ve seen some version of A Christmas Carol. Everybody from Barbie to the Smurfs has taken a swing at it. Pacific Theatre’s A Christmas Carol: On the Air presents Charles Dickens’s classic as if it were being performed in a radio studio for a live audience in the early 1940s. But why?

      The story of Scrooge, the miser who is visited by three spirits who persuade him to give up his money-grubbing ways, can be very moving, but playwright Peter Church’s adaptation doesn’t add anything fresh to its telling in terms of either insight or entertainment. For a while, it’s mildly distracting to watch the performers create foley effects—rotating a drum within a canvas wrap to create the sound of wind, for instance. And some of the vocal textures, including creepy mutterings from the ghoulish children Ignorance and Want, are effective.

      Under Sarah Rodgers’s direction, however, the convention of the staged radio play gets murky. When the Spirit of Christmas Past takes Scrooge to a dance held by his old employer, Mr. Fezziwig, the cast performs a fully choreographed number. For the radio.

      Church also does wonky things: after we’ve seen the dissolution of the relationship between the young Scrooge and the virtuous Belle, another performer grabs a mike and sings a torchy version of “I’ll Be Seeing You”. That’s the only time that the 1940s seep into the 1840s. For the rest of the evening, they’re in their separate silos.

      Speaking of the period, although Church has set his adaptation at the beginning of World War II, he makes no reference to that conflict—even though Dickens’s story is about loneliness, cruelty, and family ties, among other things. Church contents himself instead with the glib and implicitly condescending device of inserting radio commercials for things like Jell-O and Camels cigarettes.

      In this Pacific Theatre production, the quality of the acting varies. Kirsty Provan becomes a fantastically eccentric—spooky, innocent—Christmas Past, and she is slyly roguish as the old woman who pillaged Scrooge’s deathbed. Julia Siedlanowska also impresses—with tender simplicity—as Belle and Tiny Tim, the handicapped son of Scrooge’s clerk, Bob Cratchit. As Cratchit and in a number of other roles, Matthew Simmons is touching. Chris Lam motors through his portrait of Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, however. And, for most of the evening, Paul Griggs’s take on Scrooge, a role that requires enormous charisma, is only serviceable.

      Other people liked this show. They’re probably nicer than I am.