Ebenezer Scrooge would be the first one to tell you that perspective is everything. After all, it’s hard to hang onto that cranky decrease-the-surplus-population worldview once you’ve met young Tiny Tim.
Perspective’s played a key role in Children’s Theatre of Madison’s annual production of A Christmas Carol these past few years, too. As the sometime stars of the show have morphed into directors—American Players Theatre vet James Ridge played Scrooge for several years before becoming the production’s director in 2014—the insights they’ve gained from the switch have elevated the show.
The phenomenon repeats with this year’s show, playing in Overture’s Capitol Theater through December 23. This time, Ridge’s spouse, APT actor Colleen Madden, the woman responsible for adapting the classic Dickens tale into the current CTM production, steps into the cast, playing Jacob Marley and The Ghost of Christmas Present. It’s one of several casting coups that adds more electricity into an already strong production.
Most of these coups are fueled by a growing APT influence. David Daniel becomes the latest APT vet to slap on Scrooge’s nightcap and top hat, following recent Scrooges Ridge and John Pribyl—and, if you really want to throw it back, Robert Spencer. As audiences who’ve watched him at on the APT stage can attest, Daniel’s great at creating overblown moments onstage. He’s a physically gifted actor who’s not afraid to stumble or hit the deck in service of a role, and the Scroogian outrage, exasperation and, eventually joy he creates are moving to watch. Plus, his wife and three kids (one of whom plays Scrooge as a boy) are also in the cast.
This is the fourth year CTM has presented Madden’s adaptation of the Dickens classic, and its careful structural refinement, from reframing the familiar narrative to have an adult Tiny Tim narrate the tale (APT’s Casey Hoekstra, who memorably played Happy in this summer’s production of "Death of A Salesman") to making Fred (Joshua Krause) an even keener example of generosity and goodness of human spirit, are as deft as they were when CTM first debuted it. Madden’s got a great sense for leavening the sometimes deadly serious sections of the story with comic, human moments, whether she’s the one delivering them or not. (It’s enough to make us wish Madden would follow yet another APT vet, Jim DeVita, down the path of producing adaptations of other work.)
Madden lacks the physical size to make the chain-rattling Marley a particularly imposing spirit, but she more than makes up for it in special effects and spooky delivery. She also sprinkles in some Walker-esque (as in “The Walking Dead,” not our governor) moans and clicks for emphasis. As the Spirit of Christmas Present, she’s a nice alternative to the supersized, bearded traditional ghost we usually get. Wielding an LED-studded wand and packing, apparently, transcendently delicious fruit, she’s a reminder to both the audience and to Scrooge that the holidays are best when rife with laughter and merriment.
Hoekstra’s narrator plays an obvious second fiddle to the play’s miser-in-chief, but he’s got that jolly spirit rocking, too, even though he begins the play in a melancholy mood. His mugging to and interaction with the crowd as the second act begins is a great way to re-engage the younger ones whose focus may have drifted during intermission.
Christopher Dunham’s set is a gothic marvel of Swiss-army-knife utility, with its rotating central piece that pivots to shift from Scrooge and Marley’s storefront to Scrooge’s front door and Fezziwig’s warehouse. A pair of twin balconies at either edge of the stage prove a clever place for Hoekstra to oversee and interact with the action and, best of all. a key part of the Spirit of Christmas Future’s (Espere Eckhard-Lee) jaw-dropping costume.
CTM’s "A Christmas Carol" has been on an upward trajectory for nearly a decade now, since artistic director Roseann Sheridan first made the decision to professionalize the cast and production values. Every year, you think it can’t get better. And then every year it does.