ArtsATL > Theater > Review: Alliance Theatre keeps surprises low but spirits high with its 21st “Christmas Carol”

Review: Alliance Theatre keeps surprises low but spirits high with its 21st “Christmas Carol”

Everything is laid out like one gorgeous spread of Christmas gifts, minus the tree. There’s the all-star cast shifting between featured roles and ensemble choral tunes. There’s the Victorian set and costuming of layers, clutter and moving parts. And there’s the overarching message of redemption, courtesy of the second-greatest Christmas story ever told.

Indeed, the Alliance Theatre’s production of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” is a gift to fans, and to catch the show on its official opening night — before you feel bitch-slapped by TV toy commercials and radio carols — was a gratifying experience.

It’s far from perfect. Consider that this is its 21st season, and Chris Kayser’s Scrooge dates back even further. This production may be so familiar, and so in keeping with what seems to be the Alliance’s “no surprises” rule, that it might be tempting to avoid. But when you see the gifts on display and are reminded that it’s the holidays, all is forgiven.

If there are any surprise about this “Christmas Carol,” at least on first viewing, it’s how Scrooge — and by extension the veteran Kayser — is marginalized by the Alliance’s supreme ability to put on a spectacle. This is no star turn, and the bad news is that the gifted Kayser seems overshadowed by the maneuverings of cast and crew during the various ghostly visits over that transformational, Dickensian night.

Kayser has the Scrooge rap down, from the clenched face of regret to the gait of a hobbled old man, and he makes a point of telegraphing that regret early enough that his turnaround isn’t so shocking.

What’s more impressive is the cast of characters that director Rosemary Newcott throws at the audience, most of whom have performed in a range of roles over the years. With his belly laughs and grand gestures, the outsized Bart Hansard — playing both Mr. Fizziwig (Scrooge’s first boss) and the Ghost of Christmas Present — is a life force equal to Santa Claus himself. Elsewhere, Neal H. Ghant offers a heartwarming and hopeful Bob Cratchit; Daniel Thomas May makes for a conniving young Jacob Marley; and 9-year-old Royce Mann, already a third-year pro as Tiny Tim,  hits all of his few key lines, including the show’s closer.

The female performances lean a little too much toward the wide-eyed and excessively British. Indeed, productions like this one, adapted by David H. Bell, suffer from an excess of mannered movements, with the characters sometimes pointing their dialogue out to the audience. At times I yearned for a more naturalistic version, or something, anything, to surprise or challenge our preconceived notions. (Where’s David Mamet when you need him?)

But then there are exceptions, such as Bernardine Mitchell, whose Mrs. Fizziwig and Scrooge’s sassy maid brim with flask-nipping, high cackles and sweet singing.

As an ensemble, the cast shines in its vocal performances, and if there is a milk of human kindness, it’s in the music that pours over this show — even if it’s not technically a musical. What “A Christmas Carol” is, is a carefully wrapped gift. Before you get too bitter from all the crass commercialism between now and December 25, maybe you should go. Beat the holiday rush. You won’t be surprised, but you’ll probably be grateful.

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