In its second year of production at Children's Theater of Madison, Colleen Madden's adaptation of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol is as well timed and well acted as theater comes in Madison. Carolers, dance numbers and a massive Spirit of Christmas Future puppet are dynamic, and the message about community is spot-on. The play runs through Sunday, Dec. 23, at Overture Center's Capitol Theater.
Madden frames her Christmas Carol as a 19th-century family's annual recitation of the story during the holidays. Our narrator takes over the tale from a less accomplished storyteller in the brood, weaving himself in and out of roles throughout Scrooge's life. A purist might quibble with Madden's layered approach, but the flow from narration to action is organic, and the multiple points of view add welcome variety for those who know Scrooge's fate by heart.
There are adult actors from American Players, Four Seasons and University Theatre throughout this production, and under the direction of Roseann Sheridan, the kids of CTM act with talent that belies their youth.
Though he plays the crotchety Scrooge, American Players Theatre veteran James Ridge brings cheer to the production. His warmth shines through even before ghosts start to appear, making these wandering spirits a bit less scary for the kids in the crowd. (The two children seated a row behind me had to be warned that the first ghost was merely the second most scary, at worst.) Though there are a few spooky characters, such as the kids who play the spirits of Want and Ignorance, the overall effect is more dreamlike than creepy.
Ridge's performance reflects the positivity of Dickens' tale, and Dickens' desire that his ghost stories uplift his audiences and "haunt their houses pleasantly." Because Scrooge emanates hints of kindness, the change he undergoes doesn't feel like an enormous transformation; it's more of a rekindling of an underlying joy. As a result, the spirits don't have to do much but show him what he already knows but has been ignoring. Though Scrooge gets flustered when the spirits challenge his views about the poor, his family and his lost love, Belle, the ice around his heart begins to melt.
Even the eeriest moments help spread Dickens' message of love and comfort. Scrooge's nephew urges him to see people as "fellow passengers to the grave" rather than just "another race of creatures bound on other journeys." As grim an outlook as that may seem, it underscores Dickens' point that we should be far more afraid of callousness than forces that are beyond our control.