A Christmas Carol (2017) – Theatre Review: Hale Centre Theatre, Gilbert

One of the most pleasant surprises of valley theatre last year was discovering Hale Centre Theatre’s totally delightful production of A Christmas Carol. In truth, calling a show that was in its fourteenth year a new discovery is pushing things – Hale Centre’s production has run every December in Gilbert since 2003 – but after having ventured further afield beyond Phoenix and its nearby theatrical environs, a visit to Hale in Gilbert and its annual production of the Dickens classic proved to be a highlight of the year. It was one of those unexpected treats so impressive that wanting to see it again as soon as possible was mandatory.

If unfamiliar with Hale Theatre’s annual tradition, here’s what’s important. A Christmas Carol is in performance from now until December 23, Monday through Saturdays (no Sunday presentations), with single performances on Mondays and Tuesdays, two on Wednesdays through Fridays, and four on Saturdays, starting as early as 11am. If you count individual presentations until the show closes in three weeks, you’d be exhausted just thinking about it. For this reason, as with previous years, there are two alternating ensembles with two leading players fulfilling the dates; the Green Cast with Mark Kleinman as Scrooge, and the Red Cast with Cory McCloskey as the miser. Productions appear the same but with the obvious exception of seeing different faces in different roles.

Last year’s review covered the Green Cast with Mark Kleinman. This weekend saw the alternating Red Cast with Cory McCloskey, and as hoped, the production is every bit as pleasing and as heart-warming as seen last year. Director David Hale Dietlein, who clearly has a love for the story, has directed every production since its inception. Whether the presentation today is the same as it was since the beginning is hard to say – you have to assume that trial and error played a large part in how things developed – but the end result works spectacularly well.

As written before, there’s a genuine feel of Dickens’ presence throughout Dietlin’s production, particularly in the second half when things become dark and those from London’s underbelly emerge, stealing bed sheets and curtains from the miser’s deathbed for pennies. In many productions seen across the country over the years, those moments with Old Joe (Raymond Barcelo) are often omitted, but it’s their inclusion in Hale’s production that further enhances the Dickensian tone and completes the spirit of the story that the author had always intended.

In an introductory voice-over, the play even includes the 1843 Dickens preface where the author hopes his story pleasantly haunts our homes. Though, the newly invented naming of one of the Cratchit children as Doug Cratchit (unnamed in the book) may cause a Dickens purist to laugh. The name, of Scottish origin, was a girl’s name in the North of England at the time, and never used for boys in the south until the more recent, turn of the last century. The thieves of Fagin’s den would have had a grand ol’ time if they knew there was a boy in their midst named Doug.

If you’ve seen previous Hale Centre productions of A Christmas Carol, there’s not a lot to tell that you don’t already know. From memory of last year’s presentation, director Dietlin has kept most things as before, indicating that the show, now in its fifteenth year, has found its practically perfect footing and requires no further tinkering. Presumably, there’s little change in Mark Kleinman’s excellent Green Cast performance as Ebenezer Scrooge, but this year this column turns to Fox 10’s ebullient morning personality, Cory McCloskey as the Red Cast’s Scrooge, and he’s first-class. When McCloskey’s Scrooge declares, “I’ll retire to Bedlam,” you believe him. For the record, at the time, the expression ‘Bedlam’ was a corrupted contraction of the word Bethlehem, a famous London hospital for the insane. In 1843, when you retired to Bedlam, you were living the remaining years of your life in a madhouse.

Virtually unrecognizable under make-up and a graying, long-haired wig, McCloskey snarls, scowls, and glowers his way through Christmas Eve, until the work of the three spirits is complete and the man’s redemption is fully realized. His giddy delight of being given a second chance is our giddy delight, one that will make your smile broaden all the more upon realizing that once Bob Cratchit (an appropriately warm and likable Miles David Romney) turns up late for work the day after celebrating a modest Christmas Day, his salary will be raised.

Using all the theatre-in-the-round tricks that it can – ominous swirling smoke, ghostly projections, a mirror ball reflecting seemingly magical lights, falling snow, chiming bell sound effects, a haunting image of a large, ticking clock marking Scrooge’s passing of time, and the acapella voices of Dickens’ carolers singing in the aisles – writer Ted Lehman’s faithful adaptation of the Dickens novella ensures that what you’re seeing and hearing is as close to the work of the Victorian author as is possible without it developing into a dry, literal account. And as before, look closely at the framed picture above the fireplace in Scrooge’s bedroom; it’s a portrait of Charles Dickens overseeing the proceedings. Knowing the author’s love of live theatre, I’m sure the look on his face is one of great approval.

Pictures Courtesy of Nick Woodward-Shaw

A Christmas Carol continues at Hale Centre Theatre in Gilbert until Saturday, December 23

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