Jefferson Mays’ version of “A Christmas Carol,” in which he portrays some fifty characters, struck me as a singular adaptation of Charles Dickens’ story in four distinct and memorable ways when I saw it a couple of years ago. Opening tonight at Broadway’s Nederlander Theater, it’s still exceptional…in three ways. I have mixed feelings about the absence of the fourth.
The most obvious distinction is Mays’ quick-change artistry, a talent he has exhibited several times before, such as his Tony-winning performance in “I Am My Own Wife” and his Tony-nominated performance in “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” but this time with no change of costume. He is Scrooge at three different ages; he’s four ghosts (past, present and future, as well as the ghost of Scrooge’s former business partner Jacob Marley); he’s Scrooge’s employee Bob Cratchit (and all of Cratchit’s family including Tiny Tim); he’s even a pot of indignant potatoes – and every other character except one: The Spectre (portrayed wordlessly by Danny Gardner.)
This Christmas Carol is also different from most adaptations because it tells the story the way Charles Dickens wrote it. The central character whom Mays portrays, called The Mourner, is the narrator, who delivers the book’s prose verbatim (with only some editing to keep the performance down to 95 minutes); the rest of the characters supply the dialogue, also exactly as written. The effect of this is manifold: It restores some of the heft and the horror that Dickens intended, but also some of the subtle humor. The novelist subtitled his 1843 tale “A Ghost Story of Christmas” and director Michael Arden makes sure this adaptation is literally dark and scary. It also makes explicit what is often played down in holiday versions; Dicken’s concern for what we now call social justice. The combination of literary and scary makes this version probably not the best for young children (It’s recommended for eight and above.)
This “A Christmas Carol” is also extraordinarily well-designed. Other productions have also been gorgeous, such as the one adapted by Jack Thorne and directed by Matthew Warchus that ran on Broadway in 2019. But Dane Laffrey’s scenic design, Ben Stanton’s lighting, Lucy MacKinnon’s projections, and Joshua D. Reid’s sound design feel like a crucial aid to Mays’ performance, his literal scene partners. There is one scene where he is looking on the street through a window at a happy party of dancers and merrymakers, and damn it looked like these were there in the flesh. Other scenes feature spectacular effects.
The importance of the design became more evident to me on Broadway than it had been when I saw the Mays version in December, 2020, because that was during the pandemic lockdown, and the show was entirely virtual — live-captured about a month earlier on the dark stage of the otherwise empty United Palace Theater, and then streamed onto my computer – one of the most successful examples of digital theater that year. It added to the spirit of the holiday season that the ticket revenue went to support theaters that were in acute need across the country.
Having seen the performer’s facial expressions in close-up (like the close-ups in most of the photographs and videos on this page, but not on the stage of the Nederlander), I couldn’t help wondering whether a 1,200-seat Broadway theater was the ideal venue to showcase this performer’s talents. The dim lighting and occasional total darkness had a different effect when so many of the audience (not all of them in the far-away seats) were already straining to follow what was happening on stage. This is why the design is so important. And it is sometimes surprising; at climactic moments, awesome. Indeed, the sets and especially the lighting threatened at times to swallow up Jefferson Mays. Like many a scene partner, the design seemed on occasion to try to upstage the star.
A Christmas Carol
Nederlander Theater through January 1, 2023
Running time: 95 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $79.75 to $210
Written by Charles Dickens, adapted by Michael Arden, Susan Lyons and Jefferson Mays
Production conceived by Michael Arden and Dane Laffrey
Directed by Michael Arden
Scenic and costume design by Dane Laffrey; lighting design by Ben Stanton; projection design by Lucy Mackinnon; sound design by Joshua D. Reid; hair and makeup design by Cookie Jordan, puppet design by John Kristiansen
Cast: Jefferson Mays, Danny Gardner