In his 40th year as the grouchy Ebenezer Scrooge, one might think that Ira David Wood III’s performance in Theatre in the Park’s production of A Christmas Carol would be one that he’s done so many times, he’s gotten bored. You would think that his lines would be so well memorized, he’d often seem like he was throwing them away. And you’d think the story would mimic the tried-and-true versions, the straight Scrooge-and-Cratchit story that others have been telling for hundreds of years.
You’d be wrong.
David Wood’s current version of Scrooge is as fresh and different and funny as the last five or 10 or 20 times he’s done the show. In fact, this thoroughly irreverent Christmas Carol is one of the best that this reviewer has seen.
Great ideas are always worth imitating, and surely Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol ranks among the top dozen stories that are remade for the stage and screen year after year. Few know the history behind the story or even about Dickens himself. The original, written and published in London in 1843, revived Dickens’ failing career and gave him a fame that would last many centuries after his death. He’d already had quite a healthy writing career, publishing stories that ran a chapter at a time in local newspapers, but times were changing and Dickens work wasn’t as popular as it used to be. A Christmas Carol changed all that.
As a result of the popularity of the Dickens tale, many have tried to imitate the story throughout the years. In fact, retelling A Christmas Carol has become almost a cottage industry in the movie business. The first movie version (in 1938) starred Reginald Owen, June Lockhart, and Leo G. Carroll, and can often still be found as a rerun on classic movie channels during the holiday season. Through the years, the curmudgeonly Scrooge has been played by such screen greats as Albert Finney, George C. Scott, Bill Murray, Patrick Stewart, and Jim Carrey. The film has been adapted for The Muppets, Mickey Mouse, Mister Magoo, Barbie, the Smurfs, and the Flintstones. The story has been performed as a musical, a drama, and a comedy. Imagine any kind of reinvention of the story in whatever format, and it’s been done. But few have reinvented it in a way that would have made Mr. Dickens proud.
The story gave Dickens a stage upon which he replayed his own childhood memories and brought the sadness of London’s painful stories of poverty to the public. It was important to him that his audience understand the depths of despair families were undergoing as a result of the upperclass’s needs. He purposely set out to pull on the audience’s heartstrings, planning, one assumes, to throw some rather unsavory light on the wealthy business owners who took advantages of families like Bob Cratchit’s. His audience understood his reasoning, but some were surprised at his depth of understanding of the poorer class who lived in London’s seediest districts.
The story was a blend of others Dickens had read and of myths he’d heard. It celebrated the English preoccupation with the Christmas season, spotlighting the way groups gathered to carol on the streets, and used that metaphor as its basic structure. Originally, the story was written in five ‘staves,’ imitating the lines on a sheet of music, and restating the importance of the carol to the story itself. Political, religious, and philosophical themes wind their way throughout the tale, underscoring its importance as a lasting piece of literature rather than simply a story celebrating the holiday itself.
A thorough analysis of A Christmas Carol reveals Dickens’ disappointment with the way his government failed to help the thousands of poor, especially those children left on the streets or, even worse, being worked to death through a type of slave labor. He delivers a message of hope, though, showing the worst kind of individual (Scrooge) and how that person can change through self-reflection.
David Wood understands the many levels upon which A Christmas Carol aptly turns the mirror on the audience, asking them to look at themselves in comparison with the many exaggerated characters who populate this most famous Dickens tale. He pulls out the metaphors of Christian compassion and highlights them tenderly, while also leaning heavily on the political innuendo Dickens added to all his tales.
When we come enter the second half of the current musical, when Scrooge is faced with the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, we see him in a bed decorated with an oval portrait of Donald Trump; and the characters include direct references to Trump and his political failings. Their offside remarks tickle the audience so much that one often could not hear the character’s next line — though it should be observed at this point that David Wood’s timing is impeccable and his facial expressions and pauses alone are enough to set off titters throughout the audience.
Wood’s version of the tale includes an updated nod at today’s culture, so though the setting remains 19th-century London, the characters often pop out a comment on a contemporary event or person, such as the Kardashians or Elvis Presley. The lines are perfectly woven in with the character’s dialogue and takes the audience off guard.
Throughout the play, Wood reminds us of how ridiculous our own habits and proclivities are. He pokes fun at the presidential campaign as effectively as our addiction to reality television. But the musical doesn’t rely simply on innuendo and sarcasm. Wood also gives a nod to the issues Dickens maintained as important — those moments with family and the need for some human contact.
All of the cast sparkles with exuberance and charm; however, there are several who stand out beyond the footlights, almost shining as brightly as Wood himself. David Henderson plays Jacob Marley, with an over-the-top sense of humor, as he has for years; and his characterization is as spot-on as that little piece of meat Scrooge probably didn’t digest. His ease with Wood is evident when he chooses to add a line about the Kardashian sisters that is unexpected and unrehearsed. Wood loses it for a moment, unable to control his laughter; and Henderson responds in kind. But, being the professionals they are, they quickly gain back their composure and continue with the show.
Finn Miller or Piper Miller play the little crippled boy, Tiny Tim Cratchit, with an absolutely adorable lilt to his voice that makes the boy even more heartwarming than he usually is. They are animated and sympathetic, totally believable and lovable.
As the Ghost of Christmas Present, John Shearer is larger-than-life, a ghost who resembles Santa Claus far more than the supernatural. His deep, resonant voice fits the character perfectly, contrasting with the shrill protestations of Scrooge; and his physical presence makes him loom large above the other actors.
The tale is punctuated with impromptu dances and songs, as well as lots of inside jokes. Throughout it all, this version of A Christmas Carolstill remains close to the storyline that Dickens originally designed. This retelling sounds and feels Southern, one accounting of the Scrooge legend that people from the Triangle can readily understand; but it’s also an imitation that bows deeply to the themes winding throughout the original, and as stated before, does not throw shade at the master but, instead, drops more than the proverbial ha’penny in the Christmas collection plate.
Bravo to David Wood, the cast, and the people behind the scenes who work hard every year updating this classic hit! May they have 41 more successful seasons.
SECOND OPINION: Dec. 7th Raleigh, NC Time Warner Cable News preview by Caroline Blair: http://www.twcnews.com/nc/triangle-sandhills/in-depth-interview/2015/12/7/in-depth–a-christmas-carol.html; Dec. 7th Raleigh, NC WRAL.com preview for “Out & About”: http://www.wral.com/entertainment/out_and_about/event/14948497/; Dec. 2nd Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods: http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/a-christmas-carol/Event?oid=4907723; and Dec. 2nd Raleigh, NC WRAL TV preview: http://www.wral.com/entertainment/out_and_about/video/15150179/ and Dec. 1st preview: http://www.wral.com/entertainment/holiday/video/15148120/. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the Dec. 11th Triangle Review review by Pamela Vesper and Kurt Benrud, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2015/12/here-we-come-acaroling-with-ira-david-wood-iiis-zany-musical-version-of-a-christmas-carol/.)
Theatre In The Park presents A CHRISTMAS CAROL, starring Ira David Wood III as Scrooge, at 7 p.m. Dec. 11, 2 and 7 p.m. Dec. 12, and 2 p.m. Dec. 13 at Raleigh Memorial Auditorium in the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27601; and 7 p.m. Dec. 17 and 18, 2 and 7 p.m. Dec. 19, and 2 p.m. Dec. 20 at the Durham Performing Arts Center, 123 Vivian St., Durham, North Carolina 27701, in the American Tobacco Historic District.
TIP Box Office: 919-831-6058.
Ticketmaster (Raleigh shows): 800-745-3000 or http://www.ticketmaster.com/venueartist/115203/1003849.
DPAC Box Office: 919-680-ARTS (2787), tickets@DPACnc.com, or http://www.DPACnc.com/events-tickets/where-to-buy.
Ticketmaster (Durham shows): 800-745-3000 or http://www.ticketmaster.com/venueartist/115558/1003849.
GROUP RATES (20+ tickets to Raleigh shows): 919-831-6058, ext. 1071, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
GROUP RATES (20+ tickets to Durham shows): 919/281-0587, Groups@DPACnc.com, or http://www.DPACnc.com/events-tickets/group-services.
SHOW: http://theatreinthepark.com/calendar/event/2/ (both cities) and http://www.DPACnc.com/events/detail/a-christmas-carol-3 and https://www.facebook.com/events/885267271549411/ (DPAC shows).
PRESENTER: http://www.theatreinthepark.com/, https://www.facebook.com/theatreintheparkraleigh, https://twitter.com/theatreinpark, and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theatre_in_the_Park.
Raleigh Memorial Auditorium: http://www.dukeenergycenterraleigh.com/venue/memorial-auditorium (directions: http://www.dukeenergycenterraleigh.com/directions and parking: http://www.dukeenergycenterraleigh.com/parking).
Durham Performing Arts Center: http://www.DPACnc.com/, https://www.facebook.com/DPACNC, https://twitter.com/DPAC, and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Durham_Performing_Arts_Center (directions: http://www.DPACnc.com/plan_your_visit/getting_here and parking: http://www.DPACnc.com/plan_your_visit/parking_guide).
A Christmas Carol (1843 novel): http://charlesdickenspage.com/carol.html (David Perdue’s Charles Dickens Page), http://web.archive.org/web/20080825120326/http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/DicChri.html (text courtesy University of Virginia Library), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Christmas_Carol (Wikipedia).
Charles Dickens (English novelist, 1812-70): http://www.dickens2012.org/ (Dickens 2012), http://www.dickensfellowship.org/ (The Dickens Fellowship), http://charlesdickenspage.com/index.html (David Perdue’s Charles Dickens Page), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Dickens (Wikipedia).
Ira David Wood III (adapter, director, and star): http://theatreinthepark.com/about/whos-who (Theatre In The Park bio), https://www.facebook.com/iradavidwood (Facebook page), https://twitter.com/idwiii (Twitter page), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ira_David_Wood_III (Wikipedia).
Dawn Reno Langley is a Durham, NC-based author who writes novels, poetry, children’s books, and nonfiction books on many subjects, as well as theater, music, and dance reviews. She is also a writer, editor, writing coach at Reno’s Literary Services of Durham. To read all of Dawn Langley’s Triangle Review reviews online at Triangle Arts and Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/dawn-reno-langle/. To read more of her writings, click http://dawnrenolangley.blogspot.com/ and http://poetryandgardening.blogspot.com/.