Charleston Stage opened their 18th production of A Christmas Carol at the Dock Street Theatre on Friday night. As one would expect from a perennial favorite like this, the set design and costumes were elaborate and impressive, but they were overshadowed by technical issues in the first act.
We’ll skip the plot summary of this well-known tale of Ebenezer Scrooge’s redemption. Brian Porter stars as the curmudgeonly Scrooge, nearly convincing us that he’s an elderly man instead of a 20-something better known for starring roles in local productions of Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Cabaret. Resident actor Lee Hollis Bussie gives a stand-out performance as Scrooge’s optimistic nephew Fred, and Josh McCoy is cute and confident as Tiny Tim. Nearly 30 more actors round out the cast.
The production was plagued by mic issues. The curtains went up for the first time to reveal a dark, smoky stage and several men carting a coffin, when a backstage question was distinctly heard over the actors: “What flavor are the green ones?” Rustling clothes and heavy breathing (particularly from Scrooge early on) also distracted from the action. The offending mics appeared to be strapped across many actors’ foreheads, which was noticeable even from the back of the theater.
Charleston Stage presents A Christmas Carol as a musical, filled with classic seasonal songs like “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Angels We Have Heard On High.” While some actors shined in their singing roles, there seemed to be some miscommunication between the singers and musicians. During the first big number, the entire cast flooded the stage for a song and dance. Midway through the song, someone lost the beat, confused looks were exchanged, and they fizzled out mid-verse. It was cringe-inducing. Because of that, we were extra sensitive to even the slightest musical mess-ups the remainder of the night.
Hopefully we can blame these issues on opening night jitters — it’s just too bad they couldn’t have been worked out during rehearsal. On the upside, the aforementioned set, with a few new pieces added this year, was truly top-notch. It smoothly transitioned from snowy streetscapes to Scrooge’s chilly bedroom to a warmly lit drawing room. Director and lighting designer Julian Wiles excelled with the more spooky scenes — this is a ghost story, after all.
These chilling moments were some of the strongest of the play, such as when the ghost of Jacob Marley descends from Scrooge’s chimney accompanied by thunder and lightening and (perhaps a bit too much) rolling fog. In another scene, Scrooge visits his own grave, while hooded ghosts creep from behind gravestones. One failure, however, came with the appearance of Death. The huge costume seemed unbalanced and likely to topple over at any moment — a large man in a black robe would have been much more effective.
Reviewing plays like A Christmas Carol can be challenging. Theater companies put a lot of work into them, but they’re not viewed as seriously by typical theater patrons. The audience is different — on Friday night the crowd was made up of mostly older folks and families in Christmas sweaters — and they’re more focused on having fun than being enlightened. Friday’s audience seemed enthralled by the performance, giving it a standing ovation, and if good old fashioned fun is what you’re after, then you’ll likely find it with this play. But if the crew can’t work out the kinks, more critical patrons will be disappointed.