“I wear the chains I forged in life!”
This ghostly report from the doomed spirit of Jacob Marley is amongst the most famous supernatural utterances in English literature. It’s also a fair metaphor for the heavy weight of responsibility carried by any theater company brave enough to stage Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. This unstoppably popular story has been around for better than 170 years, and along the way it’s forged a long, weighty chain of expectations, adorations, misinterpretations, criticisms, dismissals and the weird, unkind backlashes that spring from any legendary story’s overfamiliarity in the public eye.
Amongst the many reasons that 6th Street’s current production of A Christmas Carol can claim to be called one of the best surprises of 2015, is that it both embraces what’s made the tale so enduring, while also blazing new trails, finding fresh, entertaining possibilities in what has, in some adaptor’s hands, become stale and predictable.
With a strong, adaptable cast, an inventively clever script by Michael Wilson, sprightly, emotion-focused direction from Craig Miller, and a delightfully steam-punk production-design, this incarnation of the Dickens classic also makes maximum use of actor Charles Siebert as Ebeneezer Scrooge. Performing rarely on local stages, Siebert’s North Bay appearances are always occasions to celebrate (6th Street’s Red, Cinnabar’s The Price). As Scrooge—the miserly skinflint whose Christmas Eve haunting takes him backwards and forwards through his own history—Siebert is fancifully mesmerizing and terrifically, touchingly real, maintaining a remarkable level of creative generosity toward all others with whom he shares the stage.
As Marley—materializing to deliver a dire warning to his former business partner Scrooge—Alan Kaplan is a wickedly, wackily menacing and also heartbreakingly earnest. As the various spirits of Christmas—past, present, and future—Miller has assembled a trio of comic actors (Jessica Headington, Nick Christenson, and Ryan Severt) who deliver delightfully spectral comedy while consistently landing sharp emotional punches when necessary—in one case, while towering over the stage on stilts.
The large, multi-age cast—with notably strong and/or hilarious performances by Jeff Coté as Bob Cratchit, Harry Duke as Fezziwig, and Crystal Carpenter as Belle—work incredibly well as a shape-shifting, character-changing, scenery-moving ensemble.
And particular praise must be given to Miller’s technical team, whose clock-work set (Jesse Dreikosen), mood-making lights (Steven Piechocki), and otherworldly sound-design (Miller, with John Gromada) are some of the best seen at 6th Street in many a Christmas.
Meanwhile, over at Spreckels Arts Center, another beloved novel leaps to life on stage in ‘Little Women: The Musical.’ With a spectacular performance by Rebekah Pearson in the lead role of Jo March, with crisp, lively direction by Thomas Chapman, and a beautifully spare musical direction Jim Coleman, Louisa May Alcott’s enduring story of love, family and individual determination is gorgeously and cleverly transformed. The story has been rearranged a bit, with the bulk of the familiar tale of the March sisters a flashback in Jo’s grown-up memory, as she strives to make a go of it as a writer in New York City, far from the home she loves.
IT works, taking elements of the book that happened earlier, and easing them later into the story, where they become the emotional peak of the play.
The entire cast is excellent, the sing is stellar, and the remarkably accessible storytelling aims straight for the heart, without forgetting that ‘Little Women’ the novel, is also delightfully, humanly hilarious.
Taken together these two season favorites are must-sees for this holiday season.
A Christmas Carol’ runs Thursday–Sunday through December 20 at 6th Street Playhouse. 6thstreetplayhouse.com.
Little Women: The Musical runs Friday – Sunday until December 20. Speckelsonline.com