By Bill Hirschman
Just unrestrained unabashed joy.
For all of us who have seen 17 too many editions of A Christmas Carol (exempting the incomparable Alastair Sim and the always welcome Mr. Magoo musical versions), it’s a celebration-worthy surprise to discover yet one more run at Charles Dickens’ public domain property that produces, indeed, pure joy.
City Theatre’s gift of Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol is a production genuinely for the whole family, bemusing the children with gentle humor, but offering adults genuinely trenchant and moving observations about squandered opportunities and second chances.
Playwright Tom Mula’s approach is to follow Scrooge’s partner after his death, through the entry chambers of hell where he is offered a reprieve if he can bring about a genuine change of heart in his former partner. We see Dickens’ familiar tale told from the outside, sort of like Tom Stoppard did for Hamlet in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. And, of course, as he stage manages the ghost’s visits, the equally despicable Marley undergoes a profound transformation that assures us all that redemption is possible even for the most appalling among us.
Mula’s theatrical kicker is that Marley and 17 other characters from Scrooge to all three ghosts are all played by one actor. And in this, Christmas came early as the ultimate character actor Colin McPhillamy combines a master storyteller’s talent to mesmerize an audience with a veteran thespian’s agility for inhabiting one character and instantly switching to another distinctly different personage and then back again.
This bravura tour de force helmed by City Theatre artistic director Margaret M. Ledford encourages McPhillamy to roam the stage exuding a sense that he is having as much pleasure as the audience as he conducts conversations between a befuddled Marley and his tiny Jiminy Cricket-type guiding sprite The Bogle bantering in his ear. Ledford’s result is what theater does that the latest multi-billion-dollar Marvel epic can’t.
The actor provides a gallery of continent-appropriate voices across a musical spectrum from squeaks to gravel. His body language would fill a dictionary, especially his hands.
But McPhillamy’s most impressive accomplishment is convincingly charting Marley’s evolution from a misanthropic curmudgeon to a reawakened soul – not a cartoon quick change, but a real transformation.
McPhillamy, for those new to the region, is an actor-director-write-educator-blogger whose memorable work across at least three continents includes Palm Beach Dramaworks’ The History Boys, Exit the King and Copenhagen.
Every bit as good as McPhillamy and Ledford is the Victorian environment created by Norma Castillo O’Hep with “cobblestone” ramps reaching out to the audience, impossibly evocative pulsing lighting by Eric Nelson that transports Marley and all of us to a score of places real and surreal, a superb sound design by Matt Corey and Robert Neuhaus with all the appropriate clanking chains, creaking doors and unearthly moans, and crucial underscoring music by Larry Schanker. All of this is deftly handled by stage managers Vivanca A. Collazo-Rosario, Gladys Ramirez and Ariana Rodriguez.
Mula provides a brilliant surprise turn in the second act as well as faux-Dickensian verbiage punctuated with plenty of light humor throughout.
If you got happily lost when your mother read you bedtime stories (or if you wish she had) Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol will return you to that moment of warmth and fantasy – but with clear lessons for adults told without condescension or pandering.
Editorial note: I hate, absolutely hate the new trend of forcing technology-impaired people like myself to attempt – not succeed, but attempt – to download the only available playbill on a cellphone. First, not all of us are cyber-adept. Second, you can’t check the cast list during the performance when you ask “who is that actor.” Third, you are more likely to “forget” to turn off you phone when the lights go down because you were reading the playbill. Fourth, most theater lovers who have been going to shows way back in 2019 treasure the physical playbills as a souvenir they keep for decades — which given ticket prices these days is the least producers can give you. And just for what it’s worth, Actors Equity is not requiring this move as anti-COVID measure.
Covid Protocol: Masks required in lobby and auditorium; tickets sent through email and shown at the door on cellphones; proof of vaccination or recent negative test required along with ID at entrance to the building
Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol from City Theatre performs through Dec. 19 in the Carnival Studio Theater at the Arsht Center’s Ziff Ballet Opera House, 1300 Biscayne Boulevard, Miami. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $50-55. Running time is about 2 hours with one intermission. (305) 949-6722 or www.arshtcenter.org.