In “A Christmas Carol,” less is not more

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Ann Arls and Dee Pelletier.
"A Christmas Carol" at McCarter with Ann Arls and Dee Pelletier. Photos by Matt Pilsner.
Dee Pelletier, Legna Cedillo, and Matt Monaco in center
“A Christmas Carol” at McCarter with Dee Pelletier, Legna Cedillo, and Matt Monaco in center. Photos by Matt Pilsner.

McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton is presenting, for the 41st time in 43 years, its annual holiday offering, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in a new adaptation by director Lauren Keating. Every new adaptation presented at McCarter brings with it the thrill of possibilities previously unexplored. While Keating’s is a solid adaptation of the familiar story, updated to allow for racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities present in the London of 1843, I am sorry to say that for me that thrill was not there.

This is not the fault of the splendid cast assembled for this production. From lead actor Dee Pelletier as Scrooge down to the Tiny Tim of Yoyo Huang, the acting talent is spot on and uniformly excellent. But I miss the large ensemble, chosen from among volunteers local to McCarter, that has filled the stage with the bustle of London in previous productions. 

The special effects that brought the magical, spectral parts of the story to vivid life in past productions were toned down. The exuberant jigs at Fezziwig’s party, repeated in the show’s finales of prior adaptations, have been replaced by relatively tamer ring dances, ending with an anachronistic dance at the finale that would not be out of place on a disco floor.

The show’s saving grace is in its cast. Dee Pelletier brings a strength and skill to her performance as Scrooge that makes the casting of a female in the role an irrelevancy. Kenneth De Abreu is a resigned yet optimistic Bob Cratchit, and Gisela Chipe is his loving, no-nonsense foil of a wife, Margaret. Together they are a believably loving couple, and as their children, Charlotte Ward Taylor, Desmond Elyseev, Zuraiya Holliman-York, and Yoyo Huang help create a family that loves and supports each other.

The look on Huang’s face adds a touch of humor to the Cratchits’ scene with the reformed Scrooge. Grayson DeJesus is a truly frightening Marley’s ghost, and his younger Jacob Marley and Legna Cedillo’s Belle Fezziwig strike sparks as the battling influences on the young adult Ebenezer of Matt Monaco. Monaco pulls double duty as Scrooge’s nephew Fred, giving a thoughtful, understatedly powerful version of Fred’s speech to his uncle about the intangible benefits of the Christmas season. He and Rhea Yadav, as his wife Caroline, make a lovely and loving pair. 

Dee Pelletier and Esther Chen
“A Christmas Carol” at McCarter with Dee Pelletier and Esther Chen. Photos by Matt Pilsner.

A Christmas Carol’s main story, of the redemptive powers of the Christmas season working on a lonely, emotionally stunted man, comes through in the hands of director Keating. But a tale originally subtitled “Being a Ghost Story of Christmas” is brought more down to earth in the hands of adaptor Keating. For those who have not yet attended McCarter Theatre Center’s productions of A Christmas Carol, this adaptation will be an entertaining addition to your holiday festivities based on the strength of its cast. To those who, like me, recall the Ghosts of Carols Past, you may find the story-telling solid but the magic and spectacle subdued.

A Christmas Carol is presented by the McCarter Theatre Center in its Matthews Theatre in Princeton through December 24th. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit mccarter.org or call 609-258-2787. The center strongly recommends the wearing of masks while in the building, but does not mandate their use.

Allen Neuner is the theater reviewer at Out in Jersey magazine. Jersey born and raised, Allen went to his first live play in 1957 and has been deliriously in love with live theater ever since. He works in the box office at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick. He has been partnered to music reviewer Bill Realman Stella, with whom he is also deliriously in love, for over 20 years. They live in an over-cluttered house in Somerville.