Have any of the progressive presidential hopefuls still duking it out thought about working “A Christmas Carol” into their campaigns? If so, they would surely benefit from visiting the new, charmingly instructive adaptation of Charles Dickens’s evergreen of Yuletide redemption, which opened Wednesday at the Lyceum Theater.
As reconceived by the playwright Jack Thorne and the director Matthew Warchus, this sprightly version of Dickens’s deathless portrait of a miser makes a pointed case for the personal benefits of redistributing wealth. God rest ye merry, fat cats: Shedding some of that cumbersome, excess cash is a surefire route to feeling good about yourself.
Such polemical ends were always among Dickens’s chief aims in writing “A Christmas Carol.” First published in 1843, this novella was directly inspired by its author’s indignation at child labor conditions in newly industrialized England.
He had thought of channeling his rage into a tract to be called “An Appeal to the People of England, on behalf of the Poor Man’s Child.” Instead, he wrote a seasonal ghost story that has become a template for the celebration of Christmas as we know it today, the most commercialized holiday of the year.
While retaining the jolliness and sentimentality associated with some 170 years’ worth of stage versions (including a competitive flock that opened the year after its publication), Thorne and Warchus have polished the story’s social conscience to a restored brightness. Be assured, though, that their “Carol,” which stars Campbell Scott as Ebenezer Scrooge, never sings shrilly.
Instead, this production — which originated with a British cast at London’s Old Vic Theater, where Warchus is the artistic director — ingeniously deploys tools unique to live performance to create an interactive relationship of give-and-take with the audience. The emphasis, of course, is on giving.
The Lyceum has been reconfigured so the stage thrusts into the orchestra section. A constellation of Victorian lanterns twinkles above not only the playing area, but also the audience. (Rob Howell, late of “The Ferryman,” did the poetic set and costumes, and Hugh Vanstone the lighting.)
No sooner have you taken your seat than you are greeted by bustling, basket-bearing figures who rove the aisles bundled in 19th-century outerwear, distributing free cookies and clementines. “We want you to be happy,” one of them said to me, with peremptory cheer.
She turned out to be LaChanze, the Tony Award-winning actress who later showed up onstage as a Caribbean-accented Ghost of Christmas Present. (Her character’s comic disgruntled manner lessens the didactic baldness of lines like, “You have spurned all responsibility for the wider world and simply tried to profit from it.”) The woman who patted me on the shoulder was another Tony winner, Andrea Martin (soon to be reincarnated as a no-nonsense Ghost of Christmas Past).
The suggestion is that we are all one at this event. That includes the uber-skinflint Scrooge. As portrayed by Scott (whose father, George C. Scott, played the same role in a 1984 TV movie), he arrives onstage with a self-involved briskness that discourages entrance applause.
This Scrooge has little of the customary Dickensian gargoyle. When he says, “Bah, humbug!,” he’s cursing under his breath, not grandstanding. He is, above all, a busy man who never stops working and despises unnecessary distractions.
In this regard, he’s probably a lot like many New Yorkers you know. And those of you who have already had your fill of premature Christmas music may find yourself rooting for Scrooge as he dismisses the carolers who gather outside his house. “I need those singing creatures kept away from my door,” he complains, rather winningly, to his clerk, Bob Cratchit (the amiable Dashiell Eaves).
Not a chance, old boy. The actors and musicians who inhabit this show can’t be stopped from breaking into song, or fiddling a familiar festive melody or, quite enchantingly, shaking out a tune via hand-held bells. Music — affectingly arranged and orchestrated here by Christopher Nightingale — is, appropriately enough, the oxygen of this “Christmas Carol.” And we understand that Scrooge’s redemption is complete when he picks up a bell himself.
You probably already know the stations of this journey. Once again, the Christmas-hating Scrooge is visited by a procession of admonitory ghosts, who in this version push increasingly large carriages, starting with a pram and ending with a funeral coach, perhaps to invoke the baggage we bear through life.
The specter of the first of the spirits, Scrooge’s dead partner Jacob Marley, is played with the requisite clanking chains by Chris Hoch. The same actor doubles in the role of Scrooge’s abusive father, who provides a new and explicit Freudian back story for our main character. (Thorne, it’s worth noting, made father-son relationships central to his Tony-winning script for “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.”)
Other contemporary accents include having the sweetheart of Scrooge’s youth, Belle (Sarah Hunt), deliver a little lesson in economic altruism, when he applies for a job as an undertaker. Two young actors with cerebral palsy, Sebastian Ortiz and Jai Ram Srinivasan, play Tiny Tim, Cratchit’s sickly son. (I saw Ortiz, who was touchingly direct in a part associated with treacly excess.)
The pervasive spirit of social collaboration reaches a delightful climax with a celebratory feast of many foodstuffs, in which all the audience participates. I won’t spoil the giddy means by which this is achieved. (Is it O.K. to mention the tiny parachutes, though?)
It’s the ideal culmination for a production that insists that Scrooge’s story has always been — and remains — our own. After the show, you will find cast members with buckets for donations to charities for children. Ignore them at the peril of your now thoroughly awakened conscience.
A Christmas Carol
Tickets Through Jan. 5, 2020 at the Lyceum Theater, Manhattan; 212-239-6200, achristmascarolbroadway.com. Running time: 2 hours.