Who’d expect there to be two London debuts of Christmas Carol musicals in one year? But so there is, the first a remounting of the popular American one by Menken and Ahrens, the second a home-grown effort making its first showing in the Big Smoke after two regional tours. Last night was the opening of the second, a British-created A Christmas Carol (book by Stephen Leask and Joshua Sills, lyrics Jessica Rufey, Music Patrick Rufey), featuring fourteen songs and a big cast (two rotating casts of five children each!). This is what I went to see at the Charing Cross Theater, and I have to say I was seeing it as a bit of a competition: how would it hold up?
This show sticks pretty closely to Dickens’ story, skipping a few minor details while hitting the majors – Scrooge’s rejection of his first love in favor of money, the Fezziwig’s party, the Cratchits, et cetera. It’s all tied together with music, from the opening crowd scene “Christmas Eve” to “A Life of Regret” and “The Man I Meant to Be.” After seeing the Tabard show’s visibly thin budget, it’s clear that a lot of work has gone into this musical, with multiple costume changes, live accompaniment, and several dance scenes.
But many of the details grate in a way I find less forgiving in a bigger show. The costume designer has made a general sort of Victorian looking clothes, which use fabrics and colors unknown to the period and cuts that range from Gone with the Wind to Mommy Dearest. This seems unbearably sloppy given the wealth of data about clothing of the period. The dance scenes also seem to have been done by someone who’s never done historical research – gentlefolk waltzing in the early 1800s? Can can dancing at a company party? Some attempts at research would have really helped add an air of authenticity. There’s also scrimping on special effects, from the missing Marley knocker (come on, even the no budget Christmas Carol did this) to the Ghost of Christmas present flying moment (which consisted of the actors standing in front of the stage extending their arms, then lights out while they ran to the back of the stage). Much better was the Ghost of Christmas future, a simple black curtain that faces were pressed out of – both spooky and a nice transition to Scrooge waking up in his bedroom, wrapped in the curtain. And the Christmas lights that illuminated the theater when the Ghost of Christmas Present appeared were simply magical.
Unfortunately, this magic did not extend to the music. The songs were melodic but entirely unmemorable, and the decision to have extended child solos in several of the songs was an affront to the ears. And somehow, Tiny Tim’s character was left nearly completely hollow by the script, which never really explained (or showed) why Scrooge was so enamored of him. A Christmas Carol has been to Weston Super Mare, Dunstable, and Bridlington, where it probably easily earned accolades, but in London, it’s in the right place in the Charing Cross Theater. There have been many excellent productions of this story, but this is not one of them, and while it isn’t terrible, it’s not really one to get enthusiastic about.
(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, December 17th, 2013. It runs through January 4th and was originally reviewed in The Public Reviews.)