David McBean (left) and Tom Stephenson in "A Christmas Carol." Photo by Ken Jacques
From the way he grumbles over his pathetic supper of gruel to his stony scowl elicited by any mention of Christmas, Tom Stephenson’s Ebenezer Scrooge is delightfully Scroogey. He grimaces at well-wishers, growls at carolers and, in Cygnet Theatre’s annual production of “A Christmas Carol,” intermittently seems to break the fourth wall and share his meanness and miserliness with the audience.
Stephenson is the anchor of Cygnet’s adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic, now in its sixth year as a Victorian-bedecked play-with-music in Old Town. (Previously, Cygnet had staged “A Christmas Carol” as a radio play in an equally charming if slightly more stilted incarnation.) Those who’ve seen Stephenson’s Scrooge in past years will enjoy the subtle nuances of characterization he always brings to the role as well as the new musical touches here and there in this surefire production directed by Sean Murray with a score by Billy Thompson.
In the ghostly story of “A Christmas Carol” … wait. No synopsis is necessary, right? What counts is the telling of the tale, and Cygnet once again does so with warmth, ingenuity and just the right degree of humor.
Besides Stephenson, everyone else from 2018’s talented cast returns, each of them playing multiple roles. Patrick McBride is a sympathetic and stiff-upper-lipped Bob Cratchit as well as a booming Mr. Fezziwig (accent on the wig). The versatile and expressive Melissa Fernandes inhabits everyone from Mrs. Cratchit to Scrooge’s put-upon charwoman with vigor and spirit, while Melinda Gilb demonstrates once more that she can kick up her heels as Mrs. Fezziwig one moment and wail like one of the Cratchit kids the next.
Charles Evans, Jr.’s gentle acoustic-guitar playing is an atmospheric complement to his many portrayals throughout, and Megan Carmitchel’s tender vocals grace the reprises of “In the Bleak Midwinter,” reworded for this storytelling. Rivaling Stephenson for sheer charisma is David McBean, who makes showy entrances as both Marley’s fettered ghost and as the towering, grandly robed Ghost of Christmas Present.
Music director Patrick Marion supports the ensemble on piano. The production’s merry choreography is by Katie Banville.
Back to the aforementioned ingenuity of Cygnet’s “A Christmas Carol”: In addition to their characterizations, the cast members other than Stephenson are busy manipulating puppets (design by Michael McKeon, Lynne Jennings and Rachel Hengst), creating sound effects as resonant as the rattling of heavy, dragging chains or as slight as the chirping of birds. Many of these embellishments are holdovers from Cygnet’s radio-play version of “A Christmas Carol” and are just as effective in furthering escape into Dickens’ story.
“A Christmas Carol,” first published in 1843, is often less regarded among Dickens scholars than his sweeping, novel-sized works, but its imagery and depth of language are undeniable. Cygnet Theatre’s adaptation naturally takes liberties with its use of the original story, but there is admirable respect for its richness and intricacy. Then as now, love and compassion reside in its holiday tidings.
(Review originally published in the San Diego Union-Tribune on 12/4/19.)
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.