Review: Bradley Whitford isn’t your grandfather’s Scrooge in Tony-Winning A Christmas Carol
The holiday season has arrived at the Ahmanson Theater, where London’s Old Vic Theater does its annual A Christmas song, with Bradley Whitford playing Scrooge. As Jack Thorne’s new adaptation seeks to add dimension to the Scrooge character, he paints childhood abuse and a misguided desperation for money as motivation to become the cold, calculated protagonist of the story, director Matthew Warchus’ vision of filming A Christmas song in a psychodrama still reveals the cardboard drawing of the Charles Dickens classic. And even with changes, even the five Tony Award winning design elements lack enough splendor to unreservedly recommend this presentation.
Thorne uses Dickens’ novella as a starting point. Ebenezer Scrooge (Whitford) alienates his family and employees with a cruel, greedy mentality. He even regards a free Christmas vacation for his lonely employee Bob Cratchit (Dashiell Eaves) as theft. He returns to his lonely home on Christmas Eve and is followed all night by ex-partner Jacob Marley (Chris Hoch) and three ghosts (Kate Burton, Alex Newell, Glory Yepassis-Zembrou) to tell the curmudgeon about charity and love to teach, and the Christmas spirit.
Warchus and Thorne make several changes to add dramatic weight to the piece. First, they imagine an alcoholic father who has despised Ebenezer since childhood but demands financial compensation for the burden of the birth. Second, they cast the same actor as this father and Jacob Marley, which gives subtext to the protagonist’s rocky relationship with his long-dead partner. Instead of using the monstrous creature that usually represents the ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, they end up using Ebenezer’s beloved sister Fan as the final ghost.
Where in many versions Scrooge has suddenly become altruistic from realizing that no one cares about his death, the caring spirit and her wayward brother have a therapy session here to find out how their cute sibling got so off-course. Thorne also adds a new breakup, with Scrooge fixing Belle with his great love and conspiring with his nephew to make the Cratchit family vacation a great celebration. These changes make the second act more important than the first – the piece felt dull and warm during intermission, but the audience eventually takes care of the characters in act second.
The ending becomes a mockery, however, when the writing forces some meta-jokes about Los Angeles and even the theater’s outgoing artistic director Michael Ritchie (who happens to be Burton’s husband). These fake anachronisms are fair for parody, but the tone of the entire evening goes against these Orange County and Beverly Hills jokes.
Whitford isn’t your grandfather’s Ebenezer. Brings the self-deprecating irony that led to an Emmy for The western wing, he dominates the stage as protagonist and commentator at the same time. Burton is ethereal as a maternal first spirit, and although Newell’s vague performance makes some of his lines difficult to decipher, his belt makes a mighty roar when he sings.
Warchus brings elements from the UK to the evening to add flavor. He and the composer Christopher Nightingale have the company play famous Christmas carols such as “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” and “O Holy Night” on cast iron bells that sound like a human carillon. Costume designer Rob Howell has most fun with the patchwork dresses that the ghosts wear, festive and colorful in an autumnal style. His set is minimalist and impressionist, save for a ceiling dotted with lanterns hanging from heavy chains. It is a depressing image that represents the protagonist’s psyche.
Although it does not always succeed, Warchus is A Christmas song Challenges of adding something new from the much-told story and bringing modern sensitivity to a story that, while famous, doesn’t invest in the characters. If the first act had found some additional hooks that interested the audience as much as the second act, it would have been a much better Christmas present.