Considering kindness

Blue Room goes to the heart of A Christmas Carol

The Spirit of Christmas Present (Kelly Houston), flanked by Want (Julia Rauter, left) and Ignorance (Stephanie Ditty).

The Spirit of Christmas Present (Kelly Houston), flanked by Want (Julia Rauter, left) and Ignorance (Stephanie Ditty).

Photo by Joe Hilsee

A Christmas Carol, Dec. 10, at the Blue Room.
Continues Thursday-Saturday, 7:30 p.m., through Dec. 17
Tickets: $14.99
Blue Room Theatre
139 W. First St.

Who hasn’t seen Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol at least once? Hollywood has churned out dozens of versions of the tale, and it has been staged thousands of times in front of millions of people all around the world. When most members of an audience are familiar with a play, whether it’s Hamlet or Death of a Salesman or A Christmas Carol, the challenge facing its presenters is to freshen it by bringing something new to the production.

This is especially true of a group such as Chico’s Blue Room Theatre, which is known for trying new things and taking chances—as it did with its last production, A Heart Laid Bare, which audaciously merged several stories and poems by Edgar Allan Poe into a single play.

Longtime local theater veteran Roger Montalbano did a good job of adapting A Christmas Carol for the Blue Room stage, emphasizing the relevance of its portrayal of 19th-century urban misery—“full of poverty, homelessness and cruelty,” as he writes in the playbill—to our own time.

The script also draws a sympathetic portrait of Ebenezer Scrooge, the miserly pinch-penny at the center of the play. Montalbano, who also plays Scrooge in the production, describes him as “a man who sadly ignores his inherent humanity as a reaction to a lack of love and the cruel incidents in his life ….” The actor’s portrayal of Scrooge’s transformation into a generous and life-affirming man joyfully dancing about the stage—“I’m so happy!” he exclaims—is a delight to watch.

A Christmas Carol presents a number of staging challenges, not least of which is that it has more than 25 distinct characters who flit in and out of numerous scenes. Fitting them all into the Blue Room’s smallish confines was no easy task. This Christmas goose is fully stuffed.

In addition, those 25 characters are played by just 10 actors for this production, which means most play at least two and often three parts. This requires numerous costume changes, which Amber Miller, who directs the play, has chosen to occur off to the side, in full but shadowed view of the audience.

She also locates a group of street people there—“an ensemble of vagrants,” as she calls them in her director’s note—who are meant to represent “the bleakness that Scrooge turns his back to.” They also provide the music that stitches the scenes together, a series of classic Christmas carols designed (nicely so, by Addison DeSantis) to complement the shifting scenes.

The performances were uniformly good on Saturday (Dec. 10), especially those of the lead actors: the formidable Kelly Houston as the ghost of Jacob Marley and the spirits of Christmases past, present and yet to come; Joe Hilsee as the young Scrooge and his nephew Fred; Shawn Galloway as Bob Cratchit (among others); David Sorensen as Fezziwig (among others); and Lea McCleary as his wife (also among others).

This multiplicity of actors and roles was confusing at times. It wasn’t always clear, for example, who Hilsee was playing, Fred or the young Scrooge. The fact that he doesn’t at all resemble Montalbano, the old Scrooge, added to the confusion.

Easy enough for me to say, you may be thinking—and you’re right. Community theater works with the resources it has. In this case, the chief resource is a vision of the kind of compassionate and kind people we all are capable of being, if only we do as Scrooge does—look deeply into our hearts and change. This production of A Christmas Carol inspires us to do just that.