EBENEZER SCROOGE: A CAROL FOR CHRISTMAS, by Geoff Whynot, Based on the book by Charles Dickens. Starring Michael Rawley, Peter Millard and Marlene Handrahan. Directed by Geoffrey Whynot. Music by Marek Norman. At the Niagara Centre for the Arts until Dec. 19. **** (out of five)
Like everyone else around here, Silver Mist Productions has been forced to downsize. Instead of the usual Disney gala this Christmas, the company is slimming down with that old Dickens standby.
But "Ebenezer Scrooge: A Carol for Christmas" isn't a note-for-note staging of "A Christmas Carol." It isn't one of the endless other variations of the classic. It's the world premiere of a new, streamlined version by Toronto playwright Geoffrey Whynot, and if you've been burned by Scrooge before, it's time to give the old coot another shot.
This is a simple, classy production with a towering performance by Michael Rawley in the title role - the fourth time he has played the legendary grouch. Familiar to local fans as Jafar in the company's production of "Aladdin, Jr." three years ago, Rawley doesn't just have the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future to deal with, he has the ghost of every great actor that walked in Scrooge's slippers.
There's not much new you can bring to Scrooge at this point. Rawley doesn't break the mold, but he brings the essentials: You must first hate Scrooge, then grow to love him. Without that arc, this is just another tedious Christmas play. When it works, it's the best Christmas play.
More than anything, this is a timeless tale about the human condition - you can't help but reflect on your own life while watching it. No matter how many times you've seen it, it's still heartbreaking to watch Scrooge revisit his past misdeeds like a helpless bystander. They are the building blocks of a miserable life to come.
Understanding how he came to be is the most important aspect of "Ebenezer Scrooge" - otherwise, he's just a cartoonish villain. Rawley understands it's the subtle things that define him. A well-timed sneer is the difference between a genuine Scrooge and a caricature.
Writer/Director Geoffrey Whynot also knows Dickens' story - great as it is - is a bit long in the tooth. He speeds things up by using the actors as narrators, transitioning scenes and removing dry chunks of the narrative.
It also works visually thanks to a functional set designed by Dennis Horn, highlighted by a gothic clock looming over everything. Stage manager Diane Konkin also keeps things moving - a simple thing like moving the window breaks up long scenes and gets the audience visually involved.
Though Rawley is front and centre, the rest of the cast is top notch - it's especially cool to see Shaw Festival veteran Peter Millard on a Niagara Falls stage. It adds some prestige to the show, and serves notice Silver Mist is a professional company booking professional actors.
The play's weak spots are marginal - composer Marek Norman's original song for the show gets repeated a bit too much, and the decision to have a children's chorus provide background effects is eerie at first, then annoying once it starts drowning out dialogue.
Still, no other Christmas story touches this - it will endure as long as people continue celebrating Dec. 25. In this case, going smaller has brought Silver Mist and its audience closer to Christmas than any Disney show could.
By John Law, Niagara Falls Review