Whether it’s on screen or stage, Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” is the gift that keeps on giving. Year after year. Adaptation after adaptation. Sometimes the gift is coal, leaving one vowing to never read, see or hear the story again. Sometimes, however, the gift is bright, shiny and as welcome as tinsel dangling from a tree branch. Cygnet Theatre in Old Town has demonstrated its high style for staging Dickens’ classic the past eight years, with a fun “live radio broadcast” of A Christmas Carol that was perennially the best of the many holiday-themed shows in town. This year, Artistic Director Sean Murray has shaken things up, adapting a new, more traditional stage version of A Christmas Carol featuring music composed by the talented Billy Thompson and incorporating artistic theatrical elements including pantomime and puppetry.
The Victorian-dressed cast includes faces familiar from the radio-broadcast shows: Melinda Gilb, Melissa Fernandes, David McBean, Patrick McBride, Maggie Carney and, again as Scrooge, Tom Stephenson. (Charles Evans, Jr. joins the ensemble this year.) All but Stephenson play multiple roles, with McBean doing awesome duty as Marley’s ghost, the arrival of which is the production’s scariest sequence, and the towering Ghost of Christmas Present. When the actors aren’t speaking, they’re pantomiming or manipulating props on stage to move the story along. It moves swiftly, too, as a good deal of Dickens’ layered plot is cut out. In fact, the script in general departs liberally from the novel. But when it comes to modern adaptations and staying true to the book, well, that ship sailed long ago.
The use of puppets (operated by cast members) to portray the Ghost of Christmas Past and assorted minor characters requires some suspension of belief, but this is a ghost story after all. It’s unfortunate that the Tiny Tim puppet looks like a Marx Brother, but at least his party is tiny.
Music is at the heart of this Cygnet production, and its stately beauty is guaranteed to put even the Scrooges in the audience in a holiday mood. Get to the Old Town Theatre early and enjoy the cast members’ caroling.
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat