Review: ‘A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas’ at Olney Theatre Center

Surely, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is the definitive Christmas story—at least, in the fiction category—and Paul Morella’s scrumptious and spooky adaptation has become a perennial favorite. Adapted from the original novella by Charles Dickens, Olney Theatre Center’s production is a one-person show with a delightful twist. Morella not only adapted the work for the stage, but also serves as the director, acts as the narrator, personally greets each audience member, and plays forty-seven characters! And what characters they are! Happy and sad, optimistic and pessimistic, colorful and dull—they are a study in contrasts.

Paul Morella in A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas. Photo by Stan Barouh.

To say that this adaptation is true to the original is to damn with faint praise. In fact, according to Morella, “The text is 99 percent from the novella—in Dickens’ own words.” At the same time, the treatment is truly unique. Because we are so familiar with the story and the characters, uniqueness might be difficult to imagine. We’ve seen hundreds of other stage productions, musical productions, films, television dramas, and sitcoms. They all use the same, universal theme of an amoral protagonist who finds self-realization and redemption, but Morella has the amazing ability to make us think we’re seeing it for the first time.

First, as a narrator. We’re told that Dickens always intended his work to be performed by a single story-teller, and Paul Morella is the consummate story-teller. His speaking voice is rich and passionate with crescendos and decrescendos that would be worthy of an opera singer. And because this is, after all, a ghost story, Morella can summon an eerie quality that is absolutely thrilling. In the preface to his book, Dickens wrote, “May it haunt their houses pleasantly,” and Morella’s adaptation certainly does.

As is the case with many ghost stories, it opens in blackout, then there is a clap of thunder and a flash of lightning. The narrator emerges from the audience carrying a lantern and takes the stage. He finds a perfect Victorian setting with a writing desk and chair and an easy chair with ottoman. Both sides of the stage are strewn with miscellaneous debris such as piles of books and papers, old eyeglasses, clocks, a coat rack, an umbrella stand, and a violin. Upstage, the illusion of a fireplace is created with andirons, logs, and pokers.

The narrator gives a short history of the firm of Scrooge and Marley and reports on Marley’s death. He describes the character of Ebenezer Scrooge as tight-fisted, wrenching, clutching, covetous, hard and sharp as flint, and solitary as an oyster. And Scrooge “carried his own low temperature always about with him.”

Paul Morella in A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas. Photo by Stan Barouh.

We’ve established that Morella is an incredible narrator, but how does he play the other characters? He starts with detailed imagery and a vivid description of each character, then uses a voice to match the description. When the various characters engage in conversation, his talent is transcendent. That is the magic of Paul Morella.

For example, Scrooge speaks with a grating, high-pitched, tight-lipped voice. Miser that he is, we supposed that he doesn’t want to open his mouth any further than is necessary. In contrast, his clerk Bob Cratchit exhibits a broad, working-class Cockney sound. And when Scrooge and his nephew converse, the nephew’s cockeyed optimism comes shining through.

The story continues with Scrooge having a nightmare. Marley’s ghost appears with a ghastly yellow light on his face. He speaks in a deep, booming voice with plenty of echo. The ghost tells Scrooge that he will be visited by three spirits who will lead him on an odyssey and whom he must obey. The first is the Ghost of Christmas Past with a slow and measured voice who leads Scrooge to the schoolhouse of his youth. Morella assumes the voice of a young girl who is deliriously giddy and we learn that she is Scrooge’s little sister. Scrooge then comes upon his former employer, Old Fezziwig, who is hosting a ball. In this scene, Morella’s physicality is on full display as he pantomimes a dance routine that stops the show.

Along with the ghosts, the drama, and the life lessons, A Christmas Carol offers a generous helping of comedy. When the second spirit, the Ghost of Christmas Present, leads Scrooge to the home of Bob Cratchit, we are treated to a scene of a family’s obsession with dinner. First, it’s the goose. Then, it’s the pudding. It’s hilarious! Morella even sings in Tiny Tim’s voice!

In creating the magic, Morella is ably assisted by Lighting Designer Sonya Dowhaluk, Sound Designer Edward Moser, and Projection Designer Patrick W. Lord. A particularly clever effect comes when Scrooge is looking at his grave downstage and the writing is projected upstage. An outstanding lighting effect uses a window above the stage and filters multi-colored lights and shapes through the panes. It’s spectacular!

A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas is a unique theater experience which should not be missed. A warm and wonderful holiday treat awaits you at the Olney Theatre Center.

Running Time: Approximately two hours including one 15-minute intermission.

A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas plays through December 31, 2017, in the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab at Olney Theatre Center — 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, in Olney, MD. For tickets, call (301) 924-3400, or purchase them online.

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Paul M. Bessel and Barbara Braswell
The most important thing about Paul M. Bessel is that on January 1, 2011, he married the most wonderful woman in the world, who helped him expand his enjoyment of theater. (The first show he remembers was Fiorello! when he was ten, wearing his first suit.) He and his wife now attend as many musicals, history seminars, and concerts as possible, sometimes as many as 4 or 5 a week, enjoying retirement and the joys of finding love late in life, and going on unconventionally romantic dates such as exhibits of mummies and lectures on parliamentary procedure. They live in Leisure World of Maryland and in addition to going to theaters as often as they can they are active together in community and local political organizations. Barbara Braswell grew up in Newport RI, where Jackie Kennedy once bought her an ice cream cone. She has been interested in theatre her whole life. While pursuing a 33-year career with the U.S. Department of Transportation — helping states build highways, including H-3 in Hawaii, where Barbara helped arrange for a shaman to bless the highway — she attended as many shows as possible on her own, with her late mother, and now with her husband. Now retired, she devotes a great deal of time to theatre, community and local political meetings, and having as much fun as possible.


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