No one will accuse Children's Theater of Madison of not going full-bore with its annual production of A Christmas Carol, the Charles Dickens classic adapted for the stage by Romulus Linney (father of Laura, for you movie-trivia buffs).
You don't just see and hear this production, you literally smell it as special-effects smoke wafts out over the audience when Jacob Marley's spirit appears via the fireplace of Ebenezer Scrooge, that miser par excellence. From sets to costumes to lighting, this is not a production that seems Scrooge-like or cheap in any regard.
But what of the story? For adults, it's a familiar one, this tale of a heartless old man who needs supernatural intervention to see the error of his ways and feel compassion for his fellow human beings. As we are marched through the visits by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, we know where this tale is headed.
For children, though, the story is not so timeworn, and kids should be suitably wowed by the energetic bustle on stage and imaginative props like the towering and ominous Ghost of Christmas Future. When this haunting apparition was revealed, I heard faint crying from a little one in the audience. I can see why CTM discourages kids 6 and under from attending. Older kids, though, will have seen more disturbing imagery on TV and in films and therefore won't be fazed.
Robert Spencer, a veteran of many regional theaters including American Players Theatre, Madison Rep and Milwaukee Rep, is playing CTM's Scrooge for the third time. His take on Scrooge is a classic curmudgeon with a dash of the juvenile. Underneath it all, Scrooge is a kid at heart and, until his transformation, a pretty mean one. While Spencer indulged in a bit too much mugging for my taste, he's also nimble, animated and a successful fulcrum for this production directed by Roseann Sheridan.
Scott Haden gives a more natural and understated performance as Bob Cratchit, Scrooge's long-suffering employee. The scenes with the Cratchit family at home (including Rebecca Raether as Mrs. Cratchit) added a welcome dose of realism and domesticity in between the more fantastical interludes.
Daniel Torres-Rangel is also noteworthy as the young Scrooge, who botches his chances at love and happiness when he lets greed get in the way of loyalty. Torres-Rangel gives us a Scrooge who has yet to harden into the miser we meet when the curtain first opens.
In terms of pacing, the play's first half (as Scrooge is led around by the ghost of Christmas Past) seemed a touch slow. Thankfully, after a brief intermission, things picked up during the Christmas Present and Future sequences.
And, whether you're experiencing this story for the first time or the fifteenth, Scrooge's transformation is an emotionally affecting one. In the end, it's about simple human connection and deriving pleasure from helping others, which is a worthy moral no matter one's spiritual leanings.