A warm, engaging ‘Christmas Carol’ goes on at American Shakespeare Center

A cast replacement did not diminish the high energy and game atmosphere in Blackfriars Playhouse. The actors had the audience transfixed.

This review is not only about the delightful adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol now warming hearts at Staunton’s unique Blackfriars Playhouse, but about how theater artists adapt and use their inventive skills to prove the adage “The show must go on.”

The night before this reviewer was to attend A Christmas Carol at the American Shakespeare Center, an email went out to warn patrons of some changes to the weekend’s performances. A key cast member had been treated for “a non-contagious medical emergency,” so some performances would feature understudies, scripts in hand, and simplified staging. Actors would still be in costume; the show would be highlighted with music and sound effects provided by the actors, a feature of many of the company’s performances, over the last 35 seasons.

Ben Lambert as Bob Cratchit and Molly Martinez-Collins as Tiny Tim in ‘A Christmas Carol.’ Photo by October Grace Media.
Ben Lambert as Bob Cratchit and Molly Martinez-Collins as Tiny Tim in ‘A Christmas Carol.’ Photo by October Grace Media.

How would this professional company, in their evocative recreation of Shakespeare’s indoor playhouse, make lemonade out of a potentially bitter lemon?

Current patrons of the weekend’s performance needn’t worry — the cast illness did not diminish the high energy and game atmosphere within the playhouse. The company of actors took the stage and in moments had the appreciative audience transfixed by the oft-told tale of Ebenezer Scrooge and his journey of redemption, ushered by his late, old partner Marley and those three spirits of Christmases Past, Present, and Future.

Performing in a storyteller style, with the most basic staging, the dozen or so actors took turns narrating or stepping into characters who intersect with the old skinflint. Under the open stage and constant lighting — at Blackfriars they perform with universal lighting — the actors weaved Scrooge’s famous story with such verve and stagecraft, it was one of the most refreshing renderings of the story in my experience.

Acting fellow Ethan Goodmansen stepped into the top hat and long coat of Scrooge and assayed himself with the proper bluster and authority. (The program lists Kenn Hopkins Jr. as Scrooge.) From his stentorian “Bah humbugs!” to his tender moments observing the Cratchit family, and his sheer terror glimpsing a bleak future, Goodmansen captured all the range of Ebenezer’s Christmas Eve odyssey.

The rest of the Blackfriars company ably supported Scrooge, taking on all the other roles — from the charity workers, nephew Fred, Cratchit family, past, present, and future figures galore. Listed alphabetically, the rest of the company included Alexis Baigue, Chris Bellinger, Summer England, Matthew Henerson, Erica Cruz Hernandez, Jess Kaddish, Ben Lambert, Molly Martinez-Collins, Joe Mucciolo, Nicolas Eric Sanchez, and Anna Taylor. Brendan Cullen provided strategic sound effects as the foley artist, along with the entire company, using bells, instruments, and other found objects.

The cast of ‘A Christmas Carol.’ Photo by October Grace Media.

James McClure is credited as the writer of the adaptation, which keeps Dickens’ language and plot points but is a tight, 90-minute running time and moves swiftly through Scrooge’s eventful story. Stephanie Holliday Earl, as director, kept the action moving and kept the actors all onstage throughout the performance, except for a few surprise entrances using unique features of the playhouse.

During the season of giving, it was heartening that the American Shakespeare Center did not have to cancel performances and was still able to offer their playhouse audiences a warm, engaging evening of theater that spread joy. As Tiny Tim exclaimed, “God bless us, everyone,” we could all share in the blessings of a unique theatrical experience.

Running Time: One hour and 30 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.

A Christmas Carol plays through December 30, 2023, presented by American Shakespeare Center at the Blackfriars Playhouse, 10 South Market Street, Staunton, VA. Purchase tickets ($27–$70, with group discounts available) online or through the box office 1-877.MUCH.ADO, Wed.-Fri. 1-5 pm; Sat. and Sun. 12-4 pm.

Credits for the cast and artistic team of A Christmas Carol are in the holiday program online here.

COVID Safety: American Shakespeare Center strongly encourages patrons to mask when possible. ASC’s complete COVID-19 Safety Visitor’s Guide is here.


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