SOUTH SALT LAKE — It might seem simple to put on a production of such oft-performed material like A Christmas Carol. Of course, the novel by Charles Dickens has been around since 1843 and it has been made into countless feature films, TV movies and stage productions. However, such familiarity can be a double-edged sword: the classic title gets people in the door but presents a challenge of making a holiday tradition new and fresh. Fortunately, the Parker Theatre could meet that challenge and has created on a wonderful version featuring great acting and dazzling production values. I challenge people who feel burnt out with A Christmas Carol to give the Parker Theatre’s production a shot. It is so well executed and does not disappoint.
In the program, playwright Brinton Wilkins says that he wanted focus on the theme of “banishing want and ignorance.” Indeed, the child characters that symbolize these problems are often cut out or forgotten in many adaptations, and including them on stage strengthened the message of the play. One of the big themes of all of Dickens’s writing was the blight poverty caused on individuals and families, especially at the Yorkshire schools (Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby) and the prisons/workhouses (Little Dorrit, Great Expectations), where his own father was forced to work for years. It is no accident one of the first things Scrooge says to the solicitors is, “Are there no prisons?”
Director Spencer J. Hohl (who also adapted the script with Wilkins) made special efforts to highlight this theme throughout the script. Audiences at the Parker Theatre get scenes that rarely appear in adaptation of A Christmas Carol, including the family willing to risk freezing rather than going to the workhouse, or the man digging coal who is weary but is cheered up by humming a holiday tune. This version also shows the Cratchits as more than just paragons of virtue; they are a family who faces real struggles with as happy an attitude as possible. Bob Cratchit, in particular, knows he does not have the means to help his son heal, and that weighs on him throughout the present sequences.
All of this nuance and context are there at Parker Theatre’s production, and I could not have been more impressed. But it’s not just the very well written script that shines but the wonderful acting. Many local actors playing Scrooge struggle to create a unique performance because he is such a familiar character. But Mark Knowles feels like a younger, vibrant Scrooge, and I particularly enjoyed him as what I call “crazy Scrooge” at the end when the character is full of manic energy because of his salvation.
Jason Purdie and Emily T. Parker are wonderful as the Cratchits, creating a believable couple. Stephen Harmon plays two versions of Jacob Marley: a living Marley working alongside Scrooge and then in his ghost form. I have always felt an underappreciated aspect of A Christmas Carol is the theme of friendship; as bad as Jacob is, he reaches out to save his friend from a similar fate. Harmon’s performance and the script emphasized the importance of friendship and its power to change people for the better.
In addition to the strong script and performances, the production values in A Christmas Carol are all really strong. The lighting design by Tom Hohl is used very effectively to create snow, rain, and the lights of the various spirits. The production also features the past and future ghosts flying in sequences that are a ton of fun to see. Finally, the sound design (uncredited in the program) was effective throughout the show, particularly in the Jacob Marley section. As director, Spencer J. Hohl was masterful in coordinating the technical aspects of the production to make something truly special.
I could not have been more impressed by the Parker Theatre’s production of A Christmas Carol. There is no better way to get into the holiday spirit than buying a ticket and seeing this show. With Knowles as Scrooge, a strong script, and Spencer J. Hohl’s direction, A Christmas Carol at the Parker Theatre is exceptional holiday theater.