Arts and Culture

​​​​​​​CTM's 'A Christmas Carol' is a study in contrasts

The difference is in the play's details

Now in his third year directing Children’s Theatre of Madison’s “A Christmas Carol” (playing through Dec. 23 in Overture Center’s Capitol Theater), James Ridge is like a man with his hand hovering on the dials, gently twisting and tweaking to bring his vision into crisp focus. He’s got the story of Scrooge and the spirits down pat. The devil’s now in the details; the small moments that reveal the show’s larger purpose.

The show’s anchored, as it was last year, by excellent performances by American Player Theatre vets David Daniel and Casey Hoekstra, as Scrooge and the narrator. In many ways, this year’s edition is a study in wild contrasts. In the early scenes, Daniel’s Scrooge is flinty and intimidating, setting the stage for the gradual softening that’s to come. Young Ebenezer (Robert R. Doyle) is both much more enthusiastic at Fezziwig’s ball—the man’s an utter dancing fool, for a change, not the usual retiring/ reluctant participant—and he’s much, much harsher in the scene where he lets Belle (a graceful Andrea San Miguel, another APT vet), the love of his life, walk away. This year, the scene where young Fan (Grace Halverson) comes to liberate young Scrooge (Declan Daniel, David’s son) from boarding school is played mostly for laughs, not pathos.  

The spirit crew is also a study in contrasts—both more traditional and more flamboyant. The spooky factor of Nathan Connor’s hulking Jacob Marley is aided by voice alteration and a seriously rough case of bedhead. Jeri Marshall’s Ghost of Christmas Present is a sassy, scene-stealing jokester—and so fashionable, if Scrooge had busted out a “Yas, Queen!” at finding her in his entryway, it wouldn’t have felt out of place. (It was also nice touch to give her throne a personality of its own.) And the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is one of the very best things about the staging. It’s constantly amazing how much drama an immense black cloak can generate. 

Meanwhlle, Hoekstra is given much more to do as the story’s narrator. Sure, there are still points where he’s hovering at the sides of the stage, doing little more than holding up a handbell and waiting to use it. But this year, he’s a full participant in Fezziwig’s bash, and gets to do things like slap a shawl on his head and bring out the huge turkey at Fred’s holiday party. These bits of comic lunacy seem like they may have been inspired by Ridge’s turn in APT’s madcap production of Pericles this summer. Hoekstra is great at playing comedy, and the show’s better for it.

Ridge and Daniel talked about avoiding what they called Scrooge’s “shotgun redemption”—the notion that he only amends his ways after he gets a gander at his gravestone and becomes terrified of dying. There’s evidence of a new approach throughout the play. When Daniel’s Scrooge mutters that he’d like to say a kind word to Bob Crachit (an ever-optimistic Sean Duncan), he really seems to mean it. And the play’s penultimate payoff scene emphasizes just how deeply Tiny Tim’s plight has affected and motivated Scrooge. The tableaux Ridge stages is breathtaking.

Speaking of young Tim, I don’t know that I’ve seen a sicklier, more affecting version. Azelie Klingele’s Tim has a fit on stage, and looks like a stiff wind would blow her next door into Overture Hall. But the bonds she forms with her parents and siblings are heart wrenching and honest.

There are points where the play’s pacing seems rushed. Colleen Madden’s adaptation of Dickens’ tale is packed with memorable money lines—like the one where Scrooge drops the bomb about depleting the surplus population—and some of them zip past, leaving potential dramatic impact on the table.

Scrooge’s redemptive beats are familiar to most of us, but this year’s CTM production shows us new and unconsidered angles—and that’s a Christmas gift that’s both welcome and unexpected.

Aaron R. Conklin writes his award-winning coverage of the Madison theater scene for madisonmagazine.com.


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