OREM — I admit that when I accepted the assignment to review this year’s production of A Christmas Carol at Hale Center Theater Orem, I did it with a little bit of trepidation. I expected to enjoy the show. After all, Charles Dickens‘s holiday tale is a classic for a reason. But I have a tradition of attending A Christmas Carol at HCTO every year, and what could I say about it that is new and fresh? The whole appeal of a show like A Christmas Carol is its tradition. That makes it challenging for theatre companies to try new and innovative approaches to the story. Well, to my complete delight what I was presented with at the theater was not the same old show, but was a completely new adaptation that is a perfect choice for their 250th production as a theater company.

Show closes December 23, 2023.

While it is not credited in the program, this year’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol was penned by the show’s director, Rodger Sorensen. Much of Sorensen’s script consists of characters reciting the actual text from the original novel. Sometimes characters not in the scene will dictate what is happening from the text, and other times the characters themselves will speak in first person describing what they are doing while they are doing it. For example, in the opening scene at the office Cratchit describes himself as, “the clerk involuntarily applauded,” at Fred’s speech.

There are times when the narration is too much of a good thing. The audience is not stupid, and they do not need everything explained to us. Detailed explanations of what characters are doing may be necessary when reading a book, but on stage, much of that action is happening before the audience’s eyes. For example, it is probably not needed to have Little Fran to quote verbatim from the book when she comes and rescues Scrooge from his isolation at school. Nevertheless, it was a unique and fresh take that usually succeeded in telling an old story in a new way.

Jimmy Polifka as Tiny Time. Photo by Suzy O Photography.

There may be some audience members who will miss the previous version of A Christmas Carol at HCTO, and I can understand that feeling. But there is enough of the traditional and endearing preserved to please most purists. For example, Tiny Tim is absolutely adorable played by Jimmy Polifka who not only gives us the iconic, “God bless us everyone” line but sings, “What Child is This?” Tiny Tim’s father later sings the same song on at the graveside, providing a very moving throughline within the script. I also appreciated when reformed Scrooge meets up with the singing beggar girl from earlier in the first act, she gives him a hug and wishes him Merry Christmas.

I wonder if Sorenson was influenced by old-time radio broadcasts in the crafting of this production. One of my favorite elements was the use of foley sound effects in many scenes. For instance, in the Jacob Marley section the townspeople have chains and metal to clang to add to the experience. They also have a cellist (Risa Bean) and violinist (Naomi White) who accompany carolers throughout the show as they weave their way through story with traditional carols like “I Saw Three Ships” and “Bring a Torch Jeanette, Isabella.” Sorensen even has the carolers singing in the background to mimic the sounds coming from the street when Scrooge is in his office.

Speaking of Scrooge, Ric Starnes adequately captures the iconic character, but I found him more compelling in the latter section when Scrooge is redeemed than in the grumpy early parts. This, again, might partly because the reciting of text kept the character at a distance. David Matthew Smith is warm and endearing as Bob Cratchit, and Ryann Bailey Wawro is a standout as Belle. In this production, all the actors except for Scrooge played multiple roles, which was an interesting approach to the show.

Photo by Suzy O Photography.

Anyone who has seen a show at HCTO knows the limitations of the small theater-in-the-round stage, but the creative team did what they could to amplify the space. Foremost was the creative lighting design by Ryan Fallis and the foley and other sound design by Cole McClure, which all combined to create an immersive experience. I particularly thought the implementation of the ghosts was effective. The Ghost of Christmas Past has the feel of “a head without a body,” due to an ethereal costume from designer Dvorah Governale that gave the illusion that the actress was floating above the stage.

I also found the design of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come to be fascinating. Sorensen casted an actress (Kaylene Neo) in the role, which I have never seen before in an adaptation of A Christmas Carol. The technical staff put Neo on stilts or otherwise elevated, making her appearance large and looming — until the very end, when the text tells us she gets smaller as the specter leaves Scrooge.

I cannot overstate how refreshing it was to see a company like HCTO taking risks with A Christmas Carol. It is an exhilarating show —something I did not expected about it. This might be the production of A Christmas Carol that wins over audience members who think they have seen this story too many times. But it will not alienate people who have a tradition of going every year to Hale Center Theater Orem to see the story they know and love. A Christmas Carol is the great start to the holiday season. This artistic accomplishment is the perfect way for HCTO to mark their 250th production. Congratulations and Merry Christmas!

A Christmas Carol plays nightly (except Sundays) at 8 PM through December 23, with performances at 5 PM on days starting December 2. Additional  Saturday matinees at 11 AM and 2 PM  begin on December 8, and additional weekday performances at 11 AM and 2 PM will occur on December 18-22. All performances are at Hale Center Theater Orem (225 West 400 North, Orem). Tickets are $27-40. For more information, visit haletheater.org.

This review was supported by a generous grant from the Orem CARE program.