Some stories never get old. A Christmas Carol has been adapted countless times for stage and screen since Charles Dickens’s novella was first published in 1843. Many of those versions focus too narrowly on the surface plot – a series of visions lead a bitter, nasty miser to feel “the Christmas spirit” and learn generosity – and glide over Dickens’s deeper message of social justice, maybe because the latter makes too many fortunate people uncomfortable.
Blessed Unrest‘s adaptation debuted in 2013 and has returned for a limited engagement through New Year’s Day. Written by Matt Opatrny and rousingly acted by a lively cast under Jessica Burr’s visionary direction, it refocuses on Dickens’s call for a humanitarian society motivated by compassion for the poor.
A couple of times it does so too baldly: The academic-sounding dispute between Ebenezer Scrooge and the two solicitors of donations breaks the production’s hybrid fantastical-realistic momentum, as does the Ghost of Christmas Present’s social-justice lecture to Scrooge. But only briefly. The vast majority of the show sustains a colorful creative spirit, conveying its essential message, so resonant in today’s toxic climate of extreme economic inequality, with story rather than sermon.
Smart and funny staging abounds, as in Scrooge’s climb to his top-floor walkup and his nephew Fred’s sideways dinner table. Dance numbers set to modern tracks by the likes of Lady Gaga alternate with effective scenes of pathos – young Scrooge’s doomed romance with Belle, and his later vision of the Cratchits mourning their dead son, to name just two. The adaptation also stresses Scrooge’s own backstory – the sick sister he didn’t help save, his inability to absorb his old mentor Fezziwig’s open-hearted philosophy of wealth and success. J. Stephen Brantley’s portrayal of “Uncle ‘Nezer” strikes a just balance between tightfisted misanthropy and repressed humanity.
The other players handle multiple roles with dexterity, humor, and heart – avuncular and authoritative, youthful and boyish, romantic and tragic. Becca Schneider sets the exaggerated Victorian tone with a vivid portrayal of Scrooge’s indomitable nephew Fred, cartoonishly positive-thinking when trying to invite the miser to Christmas dinner, but later revealing a knowing, realistic side. A heavily bearded Nathan Richard Wagner flips from a sensitively drawn, three-dimensional Bob Cratchit into scruffy comic turns as Mrs. Fezziwig and a mealy-mouthed poulterer. Each cast member contributes individual energy to the collective in this way.
Throughout, director Burr deftly manages a mélange of social commentary, supernatural visitations, flashbacks, comic business, metatheatrical kidding around, and sentiment, all in the service of a classic story we seem to need to keep retelling. A couple of preachy passages are a small price to pay for a bright, family-friendly entertainment that’s also an essential Christmastime reminder that the spirit of compassion and fellowship that survived the grimmest era of the Industrial Revolution can also survive any coming times of darkness.
Tickets aren’t expensive, either. Get them online or call 866-811-4111. A Christmas Carol is at the New Ohio Theatre in NYC through January 1, 2017.