Even without the departure of perennial Scrooge Chris Kayser, who has played the character for 16 years running and will vacate the role after this year, the Alliance Theatre’s “A Christmas Carol” would be high atop any to-do list for holiday season viewing. Fling whatever snarky comments you can in its direction, but the bottom line is that this is a polished production that gets the job done — and certainly knows who its audience is.
As directed by Rosemary Newcott, this take on the Charles Dickens classic, running through December 29 at the Alliance Theatre, has become an Atlanta staple during the season, now in its 24th year. After years of staging the Sandra Deer version, the company now uses the lavish David H. Bell adaptation.
Kayser is the perpetually grumpy Ebenezer Scrooge, who barks at coworker Bob Cratchit (Thomas Neal Antwon Ghant) and has little tolerance for others or any appreciation of the holiday season. On the evening of Christmas Eve, Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley (Andrew Benator) and then by three specters at his Victorian England home — the Ghost of Christmas Past (Elizabeth Wells Berkes), the Ghost of Christmas Present (Bart Hansard) and a (costumed) Ghost of Christmas Future — causing him to examine himself and who he’s become.
Anyone looking for edgy fare or a radical take on a classic should look elsewhere. Subtle, this isn’t. Bell’s version is faithful to the source material but a little too eager to please. This “Christmas Carol” is like a puppy that licks you in the face — over and over. It’s a show full of fog and snow and precious children, as well as a flying sequence and music. At times, it’s just too busy — the special effects and singing threaten to overshadow the central story. Yet it still works, grounded in Kayser’s believable turn as the central character.
As always, the actor brings his reliable gravitas to the role of Ebenezer, never overplaying and always finding the character’s dimensions. If much of his performance is watching what the ghosts have to show him, his revelation and turnabout at play’s end seems genuine. It would be easy to play Scrooge as one note, but Kayser has never gone that route. Luckily, Newcott has rounded up a dandy cast to surround him that includes Hansard, Ghant, Benator, Joe Knezevich and many more, including Jaden Robinson, a former foster child who could be the cutest Tiny Tim on record. Many of these supporting performers have been with the production for several years themselves and feel at home in their roles. Were it not for Kayser, the MVP would be Hansard, who doubles delightfully as Fezziwig and the Ghost of Christmas Present.
D. Martyn Bookwalter’s set is one of a kind, draping the Alliance stage like a Christmas ornament and flexibly shifting from Scrooge’s office to home to other locations. The music, too, is lovely, with snippets of Yuletide classics spread throughout the show, many anchored by Je Nie Fleming, who ably takes on Mrs. Fezziwig and Mrs. Dilbert and has a voice that was made for Christmas songs.
The Alliance’s “Christmas Carol” is the kind of production that brings in crowds that might not see another show all year. It’s event theater, lacking the nuance of the company’s nonholiday fare but throwing in so much it’s impossible to dislike.
What the production will look like next year without Kayser as Scrooge is anyone’s guess, but the actor is certainly giving it his all in his farewell performances. He, Newcott and the stalwart cast have never taken shortcuts with this show, and they’re not doing so this season either.