Spirit of Christmas Present

Dickens’ classic holiday tale is a perennial favorite at McCarter Theatre.

By: Jim Boyle


TimeOFF/Frank Wojciechowski
John Christopher Jones plays Ebenezer Scrooge, above, in McCarter Theatre’s A Christmas Carol.

   It’s been done thousands of times on stage, film and television. It’s been done by everybody from George C. Scott, Bill Murray and Walt Disney. Even the Muppets have done it. But no matter how many times Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is adapted, it draws a large audience.
   "It’s a moneymaker," says Michael Mandell. "A playwright friend of mine once told me that a lot of theaters are saved by ‘A Christmas Carol.’ They make all their money with that, and the rest of the year they do more artsy plays. Personally, the Mr. Magoo version is one of my favorites. It’s very dark."
   Mr. Mandell and Anne O’Sullivan return for their second year as the Fezziwigs in McCarter Theatre’s version of the holiday classic. Considered by many as the definitive presentation of A Christmas Carol in the area, the production runs in Princeton Dec. 9-29.
   "I think regional theaters like the McCarter are so special," says Mr. Mandell. "There are so many talented people working in regional theaters that you’ll never know, including actors, set designer, make-up artists. The theater can also take chances that a lot of Broadway and off-Broadway places can’t."


TimeOFF/Frank Wojciechowski
Above, the Ghost of Christmas Present.

   Appearing during Ebenezer Scrooge’s visit to his past, the Fezziwigs’ scene offers a glimpse into how the penny-pinching miser became what he is.
   "She’s a very good-time girl," says 33-year acting veteran Ms. O’Sullivan of her character. "She enjoys being a wife and mother. They like to eat and drink and have fun and party."
   "We’re very outgoing and uplifting," says Mr. Mandell, who’s been performing for more than 20 years. "We are at the Christmas party, and it’s really one of the highlights of the play. The rest of it is kind of dark, but this is one of the moments when all the costumes are bright and everybody’s twirling. Meanwhile, Scrooge is in the corner doing work, and he starts to see how different he is from everybody."

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   The illuminating trip down memory lane allows audiences to get a real idea of what shaped Scrooge’s attitude toward Christmas. A major event introduces his first girlfriend, Fan.
   "She works in the mill," says Nicole Alifante. "She’s in the boys’ clubs. In the memory, she tells Scrooge she’s ready to meet his parents, and he’s really embarrassed of her. It’s a real disappointment for her. She gives him a music box as a present and leaves. It’s a beautiful moment and represents his soft spot. Later, she’s dying after giving birth to her son, and asks Scrooge to make sure he doesn’t spend Christmas alone, which he neglects to do for a few years. It’s an important part of his history."
   In the business for two-and-a-half years, Ms. Alifante is making her first appearance on the McCarter stage. Initially, she felt some uneasiness about entering a production where most of the cast was returning to roles, creating a family-like atmosphere.


TimeOFF/Frank Wojciechowski
Josh Rose and Simon Brooking as Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchett at McCarter.

   "It was a little scary coming in here my first day," she says. "But everybody was incredibly generous right from the beginning. I kind of came in here with a lightweight attitude, because it’s ‘A Christmas Carol.’ Then (director Michael Unger) gave this amazing speech before rehearsals and it really put a different weight on this. It got me thinking about acting and this is what I do and what’s my legacy going to be."
   Rehearsal allows the cast and crew to work out different thoughts and ideas for their characters and how they will be presented in the context of the set. Even though members such as Ms. O’Sullivan and Mr. Mandell are returning, they are able to stay focused and get excited about their parts.
   "I like to find new moments for my character," says Ms. O’Sullivan. "We’re really doing almost caricatures, and we’re just trying to make them as human as possible without overdoing it."
   "We’re pretty open to what other people bring to their characters," says Mr. Mandell. "I also really like working with the kids, they’re really good. And they’re so smart. We were doing a read-through, and they had all the inflections and everything. I was stuck on a couple words, and they went right by them."
   A positive live performance depends on making a connection with everybody in the audience. "You’re really lucky when you do make that connection," says Mr. Mandell. "You know when they’re with you, and you know when they’re not. Sometimes when I’m up there, I’ll think to myself, ‘How did 1,000 people get on the same page?"
   Fortunately, with such a well-known work like A Christmas Carol, it’s a little easier to get the audience on the same side. The story of one man’s journey form the darkness to the light can usually lift anybody’s spirits.
   "It’s a great story to tell, especially with all the awful stuff going on in the world," says Mr. Mandell. "I think people need stories of other people developing as human beings."
A Christmas Carol plays at the McCarter Theatre, 91 University Place, Princeton, Dec. 9-29. Performances: Mon. 7:30 p.m. (except Dec. 16), Thurs. 7:30 p.m. (except Dec. 26); Fri. 7:30 p.m. (and 3 p.m. Dec. 27); Sat. 1, 5:30 p.m.; Sun. 1, 5:30 p.m.; Tues. Dec. 24, noon, 4 p.m. Tickets cost $34-$41. For information, call (609) 258-2787. On the Web: www.mccarter.org