OREM — A Christmas Carol is an annual tradition at Hale Center Theater Orem. That does not mean, though, that the show is the same every year. Building on last year’s successful changes, the artists at HCTO have created their most satisfying telling of A Christmas Carol yet.
Director Shawnda Moss could have taken the easy way out and restaged last year’s version of A Christmas Carol. Instead, she approached the production as an entirely new show, creating a fresh staging for the familiar Dickens tale. Her staging used the ensemble like a Greek chorus, with their narration and singing effectively setting the mood and moving the story forward.
Ric Starnes plays Ebenezer Scrooge, and like the staging, his performance feels new and impactful. In the course of the evening, Starnes hits the highest highs and lowest lows of human emotion, and none of it feels hokey. Starnes makes Scrooge a realistic miser, eschewing a cartoony portrayal in the early part of the play. This made Scrooge’s transformation into a kindhearted man more believable and rewarding to watch. Starnes is an engaging performer who can shoulder the weight of the production effortlessly.
Bryson Smellie is an affable Bob Cratchit, and the love his character shows for Mrs. Cratchit (played be Shannon Eden) is sweet. Because of the domestic affection shown in this onstage family, the Cratchit family scenes are some of the most comforting moments in the play. Smellie and Eden have a particularly touching scene when the two sing “What Child Is This?” at Tiny Tim’s grave.
Other supporting cast members made valuable contributions to the production, even though their characters had less stage time. Carlie McCleary is an enigmatic Ghost of Christmas Past who creates an otherworldly feel in her scenes. Riley Groves plays Fred (Scrooge’s nephew) with a quiet, realistic demeanor. Whether in Scrooge’s office or attending a party at his own home, Groves has a stage presence that seems to put other actors at ease.
The costumes in this production of A Christmas Carol are a sheer delight. Designed by Dvorah Governale, they faithfully conveyed the early Victorian setting of the main action, mostly because of Governale’s attention to detail. The different patterns on the women’s dresses or the men’s vests were a nice visual touch that gave a lovely variety to the production. And in an unexpected twist, the costume for the ghost of Jacob Marley (played by David Knight) emitted smoke!
I also appreciated the change of fashion during the flashbacks to Scrooge’s childhood and Fezziwig’s party. To show this Regency era, Governale gave the women in these scenes empire waist dresses, and the men wore long tailcoats with a high-cut front that exposed the waist. These costumes (along with Fezziwig’s powdered wig) skillfully showed the audience that these scenes took place in an earlier time period, compared to the Victorian scenes of most of the play.
Another gratifying visual element came from set designer Cole McClure, who painted and decorated the theater’s north wall to resemble storefronts and the door of a church. Additionally, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come was portrayed by an eerie 8-foot-tall puppet guided by a single actor. This sinister presence, with its glowing eyes and skeletal body, cast a foreboding mood for much of the second act. Unfortunately, a designer for the puppet was not credited in the program.
Also uncredited was the playwright, though the script is based closely on last year’s, which was written by Bradley Moss with Ted Lehman and Richard Wilkins. As much as I liked last year’s version, the current script is even better. The needless voiceovers are almost completely gone, and more Christmas songs have been added during scenes and transitions. A few scenes have been expanded or added, always to the benefit of the play.
A Christmas Carol may be a tradition at Hale Center Theater Orem, but this year’s production shows that traditions can improve with time. Indeed, the script, the staging, and the visual elements are all better than ever. I applaud the producers, design team, cast, and director for their efforts to improve this show. Everyone involved has resisted the temptation to work the show into a rut by slavishly mounting the same production again and again. The 2021 version of A Christmas Carol at Hale Center Theater Orem is an ideal way to ring in the holiday season for even the most Scrooge-ish theater patrons in Utah County.