SANDY — Hale Centre Theatre has a reputation for bringing a certain air of magic to the Utah theater community that has made it one of the (if not the top) most attended community theaters in the nation. It’s no surprise, then, that they would eventually expand (again) to a larger, more technologically advanced space to expand their vision and their audiences. While usually being played in the round, their annual production of A Christmas Carol (book by Melany and Richard Wilkins and music by Barlow Bradford) was performed on their new Jewel Box Theatre stage; a smaller and more traditional thrust stage.
Known virtually by everyone, A Christmas Carol tells the story of Victorian England miser Ebenezer Scrooge and his path to redemption. I had never seen this locally renown version of the Charles Dickens classic, so I didn’t know what to expect, as there are so many different versions and variations of this story being produced annually across the Wasatch Front. However, with the staging, lighting, sound design, and other elements, Hale Centre Theatre has already tapped into their new space well and use it to their advantage to tell this holiday classic.
The set, designed by residential set designer Kacey Udy, was everything I could expect to see from a period piece about old London. Consisting of a single center wall and doorway placed on a turntable, one side of the wall would have movable furniture placed on it, while the other side was being placed and set with different furniture. When the scene needed to change, a simple spin of the turntable 180 degrees would place in a new location, all set and ready to go. For instance, when Scrooge was prompted by the last spirit to enter the graveyard. He opened the cemetery gates and walked through the stationary door set in the wall. As he did, the set rotated and when it made its turn, there was the eerie tombstone looming in the center. Running along the sides and top of this wall was an old wooden staircase, a bridge covered in Christmas garland, and two platforms on which actors could stand and look down onto the other actors below them. This is a fresh look for this show to the regular, yearly patrons, but it worked extremely well.
Another satisfying aspect of this colorful production was the lighting design by Josh Roberts. Again taking advantage of their new space and gadgets Roberts did a magnificent job of having otherworldly effects play across the stage whenever the ghosts paid Scrooge a visit. My favorite lighting effect was for the Ghost of Christmas Past, who had a spotlight placed on her that resembled falling snow or stars. It was magical and inviting to look at. The sound design by Dan Morgan was also a highlight of the night. Eerie chains for Marley, ghostly wails, booming voices for the ever-joyful Ghost of Christmas Present all added to the spooky and joyful ambiance of this story. One spooky and cinematic example of the sound design was the whole scene with Jacob Marley. Upon entering, his voice was echoing and resonate. And then when he would wail and thrash with torment, his voice suddenly changed to a deep, demonic sound which left me being nervous and scared. A nice touch that also added to this redemptive tale, was when the whisper of “redemption” was heard around the theater when Marley informed Scrooge there was still a chance to save himself.
While these stage effects and tricks certainly made the story more enjoyable, the actual acting from the actors was a bit strange at some points. Whether the actors decided to pursue these odd character choices independently or whether they were directed to do so by director John Sweeney is unknown. For example, when Scrooge (played by Utah favorite David Weekes) is confronted by the Ghost of Christmas Past (played by the adorable Jackie Spendlove), he stumbles to the floor in fear; while on his back Scrooge did a very comedic (yet very un-Scrooge-like) karate kick to ward off the ghost. While it brought laughs, I couldn’t help but feel a bit thrown off by the sudden thrust into modern antics. Other examples included prolonged add-libbing and awkward laughing at every possible moment granted to the actors. But there is no denying the fact that Weekes is born to play the role of Scrooge. Again, I understood why the actors did these things; it is a show really geared more towards children at a place that bills itself prominently as a family theatre company. Children will laugh incessantly at the gags. However, with a theatre full of adults as mine was, it was awkward.
However, besides these things, the more dramatic moments from the actors played through strongly, yet briefly. Three examples came to my mind. First, Jacob Marley played by Anthony Lovato was very frightening as the friend who is “as dead as a doornail.” Lovato’s face was morose and cold as stone, which only added to the eeriness he brought on stage with him. His voice went from low and quiet to loud and terrifying, true to the text of Dickens’s vision. The second strong dramatic actor was David K. Martin as Bob Cratchit. His shining moment came at the end of the show when he did something I’ve never seen in a version of A Christmas Carol. After being told his salary is going to be raised, he calmly, humbly, and quietly tells Scrooge, “Thank you.” This was a very strong and simple choice that resonated throughout the theater.
Finally, the Ghost of Christmas Present, played by Dru, is supposed to be joyful and comedic, and Dru perfectly portrayed the character’s happiness and goodwill towards men. With his never-leaving smile and his booming chuckle, it was difficult not to smile while he was on stage. His giddiness was palpable. For example, when he brought forth Ignorance and Want (something else I’ve never seen in a Carol production) his demeanor changed to that of judge and condemner, invoking remorse and fear in Scrooge and myself. Overall, the entire cast was having fun on stage and they were a delight to watch.
If you are looking for a fun holiday show to take your family to, this is certainly one to consider. However, with how famous the show is in Utah, it is quite possible the chance to get tickets is gone. Additional performances may be added, and if so, I recommend taking you and your little ones to see this homegrown Christmas tradition.