Nashville Repertory Theatre’s production of Patrick Barlow’s “A Christmas Carol” adaptation is the maximum of minimalism – maximum holiday pleasure from the clear theatrical crucible of a minimalist focus. And the delight of watching five terrific actors caper through this modern version of a classic tale is no humbug.
Patrick Barlow turned Alfred Hitchcock’s film adaption of John Buchan’s novel “The 39 Steps” into a stage smash that the then-Tennessee Repertory Theatre successfully presented in 2011; now Nashville Rep brings us his take on the 1843 Charles Dickens novella that has inspired many adaptations on screen (large and small) and stage. (He’s also written a “Ben Hur” that employs three men and one woman to perform it.)
Barlow’s version began its stage life with Delaware Theatre Company in 2012 and has been widely produced Off-Broadway and elsewhere since. It’s not surprising, given the broad affection for and familiarity with “A Christmas Carol” and the economy of having a handful of actors play 25 named parts (including a very special Tiny Tim); but there’s more to this adaptation than offering a holiday tradition affordably – Barlow’s writing shows a love for the tale coupled with some wry modern winks at its Victorian earnestness.
“While I’m thrilled if a smaller payroll helps you get the play on in these cash-strapped times, I would also suggest the very fact of having a minimal cast offers many exciting theatrical possibilities, not to say a chance to create real innovation and magic,” Barlow wrote to producing theaters in his introduction to the script. “As a dramatist, I am most inspired and liberated by the great periods of simplicity in theatre: the Italian Commedia, the medieval Mystery Play, ancient Greek theatre, Shakespeare’s Globe, where the story, the text and the performer are central. This is why I like working with minimalist theatre – the theatre of bare necessities – and using the restraints it imposes.”
This production isn’t shackled by those restraints, starting with a striking Gary C. Hoff scenic design (lit with great mood-enhancing discernment by lighting designer Michael Barnett) that frames “A Christmas Carol” with a look which immediately summons the ghost of 19th Century wrought-iron creations (check out the Michael Scott Evans photos that accompany this review to take a look at his handiwork). June Kingsbury’s costume design is no less detailed, as the styles, cuts and fabrics combine to quickly take us to another place and age.
Director Beki Baker is the perfect leader of this merry band – she and the actors she directs bring out the humor (including some funny fourth-wall breaks) and humanity in the Barlow adaptation of Dickens’ evergreen tale. Two of those actors are part of the production staff as well – Shawn Knight doubles as music director while Mallory Mundy is the play’s choreographer. Their work on music and movement is as accomplished as their fine acting.
Knight, Mundy, Joy Pointe and Jonah Jackson take off and don multiple characters as easily as many of us take off and don winter cardigans. After watching their performances I have several pleasant memories but I’ll share a few observations – Knight’s paternal tenderness as Scrooge’s long-suffering assistant Bob Cratchit; Mundy’s exuberance as a music hall-tinged Ghost of Christmas Present; Point’s ethereal grace and beauty as the Ghost of Christmas Past; and Jackson’s joy as Scrooge’s kind-hearted nephew Frederick. In these and so many more characters this foursome is awesome.
And what about that miserly old Ebenezer Scrooge? Ah, Brian Russell! Those who’ve watched his work on Nashville stages these past three decades know his energy and comic timing are second to none. They also know he wears the mask of tragedy as well as he wears the mask of comedy. Scrooge makes a startling emotional and psychological journey during “A Christmas Carol” and that progress is both believable and beautiful in Russell’s splendid performance. He’s had many terrific performances over the years, including such favorites of mine as his Salieri in Blackbird Theater’s 2013 presentation of “Amadeus” and Prospero in Nashville Shakespeare Festival’s 1999 and 2010 productions of “The Tempest.” This turn as Scrooge ranks among the best of his very distinguished career.
Let’s raise a cup of Christmas cheer to the rest of the joyful production’s artisans – assistant director Hendrick Sheldon, artistic associate Erica Jo Lloyd, stage manager Catherine Forman, assistant stage manager Kristen Goodwin, sound designer Kaitlin Barnett, director of production Christopher L. Jones, props master Amanda Creech, scene shop foreman R. Preston Perrin, master carpenter Tucker Steinlage, costume manager Lori Gann-Smith, wardrobe supervisor Lakeland Gordon, costume technician Lauren Elisabeth Terry, run crew members Maggie Jackson and Karch Abramson, and rentals manager Emily Irene Peck. Without the spirit and strengths each bring to this endeavor the Rep’s “A Christmas Carol” would not reach the height it attains.
“A Christmas Story” had a wonderful 10-year holiday run in Johnson Theater. Perhaps “A Christmas Carol” will also become a beloved tradition for Nashville Repertory Theatre. This seasonal light deserves to shine for a long, long time.
Nashville Repertory Theatre’s production of Patrick Barlow’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” runs through Dec. 22 in TPAC’s Johnson Theater. Please click here for more information and to buy tickets.