Monday, Nov. 30, 2009 | 2 a.m.
If You Go
- What: “A Christmas Carol,” presented by Nevada Conservatory Theatre
- When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and Dec. 10-12, 2 p.m. Sunday and Dec. 13
- Where: Judy Bayley Theatre, UNLV campus
- Admission: $20-$35
- Running time: 90 minutes
- Audience advisory: Spiced-orange-scented stage fog; dodgy English accents
Just before the clock struck 8 on a chilly Friday night, I slipped crankily into my seat, bracing myself to see “A Christmas Carol” on stage for what seemed like the bazillionth time. Where the “Carols,” “Nutcrackers” and other evergreens are an anticipated seasonal treat for many people, for theater and dance reviewers, the annual parade of holiday entertainments can seem like a grim gantlet.
Readers, that night I felt as if I was the Grinch himself.
But then the play began, and just like ol’ Scrooge, my hardened heart unclenched and began to melt. Maybe it’s because the staging by UNLV’s Nevada Conservatory Theatre at Judy Bayley Theatre was so charming and sincere, or maybe it’s because the 166-year-old story seemed to mean so much more at this moment in time, faced as we all are by layoffs and foreclosures, greed and need. Whatever the reason, I’ll go so far as to say this was my favorite “Christmas Carol” in a lifetime of them.
This adaptation, by David H. Bell, remains true to the heart of Dickens’ tale, distilling the classic story to its essential scenes and sentiments and emphasizing the author’s social concerns — underlining the cold-hearted cruelty of a certain reductively money-minded political bent (“Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?” ... “I’m not about to make idle persons merry”), showing us glimpses of generosity between those who can least afford it, pleasingly balancing the Big Messages with familial warmth and a boisterous sense of humor. Rather than opting for Victorian Christmas card loveliness, scenic designer Dana Moran Williams evokes a darker image of Victorian England — the Industrial Revolution: a grid of girders and brick columns and factory windows with more than a hint of “Sweeney Todd.” Director Brad Carroll, who also supplies the electronically orchestrated music, comes up with simple moments of theatrical magic, lighting a candle in the darkness, decking a hall with boughs of holly, raising a blazing chandelier like a sunrise. Carroll’s only misstep is underplaying the sense of dread in the climactic graveyard scene — the silent ghost of Christmas Yet to Come materializes like a looming Macy’s parade balloon, appropriately dire and spectral, but not so much that he’ll scare younger audience members. Which may be the director’s aim.
The actors play it affectionately straight, without condescending ironically to the overfamiliar material, and in a welcome turn against the technological tide, they speak and sing without amplification in the cozy Bayley Theatre, except for the echoed voices of the first two Ghosts.
Clarence Gilyard’s Scrooge, whose accent hints at South African origins, is a refreshing change from the standard scenery-chewing ossified ogre. Embittered but recognizably human, he’s a businessman in late middle age, and as the lovely Ghost of Christmas Past takes him by the hand for a brisk tour of his youth, we watch along with him as the young Scrooge grows gradually chillier and harder, rejecting opportunities to love and be loved, prematurely old in his lonely pursuit of wealth. As he goes through his evening rounds, Gilyard’s frights and fusses are a hoot — little kids in the audience giggled with glee at his antics.
An added pleasure of this production was seeing actors whose performances I enjoyed in Nevada Conservatory productions throughout the year. To mention just a few: Griffin Stanton-Ameisen as Young Scrooge, Clifton Yada as Scrooge’s nephew Fred, and as the buoyantly hospitable Mrs. Fezziwig, Christina Wells, who summoned the character I conjured in my mind on my first childhood reading of the Dickens tale.
Director Carroll gets chipper performances from young actors Chase Daniels, Verina Todorova and Angelo Molineri, as sundry little Cratchits and street urchins, and his “Carol” has a secret weapon in fourth grader Dalen Todorov, the most adorable of Tiny Tims, who squeaks his big line with fervor.
There are plenty of gimmicky “Carols” out there — the latest CGI animated feature film version features Jim Carrey in all the major roles. Still, I’d recommend seeing “A Christmas Carol” in the original 3-D format: live on stage.