The third annual production of TheatreSquared’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ beloved classic “A Christmas Carol,” which is finally being staged in its intended home, is festive, fun and family-friendly, but also a bit overwhelming.
T2’s twist on the seminal Christmas tale, adapted by artistic director Robert Ford and associate artistic director Amy Herzberg, is set in a London public library on Christmas Eve in 1843, five days after “A Christmas Carol” was published. Despite his protestations, a gruff “uncollected child” waiting for his dockworker father to pick him up after the library’s close is drawn into the iconic story of stingy, curmudgeonly Ebenezer Scrooge and his three redemptive Christmas ghosts after a kind-hearted librarian begins reading the just-released novella.
For obvious reasons, the play’s adapters always planned for it to be performed in the expansive multipurpose performance space that is part of the recently opened massive addition to the Fayetteville Public Library. However, the enormous expansion project was not completed in 2019, so the first production took place in T2’s much smaller West Theatre, and 2020’s run was a virtual streaming offering because of COVID-19. This year, the play made its FPL debut in front of a live, masked audience replete with many families with young children.
Judging from the opening night performance I attended, it is those kids who seem to be the target audience of the production — which of course makes sense given the setting. Still, I found it difficult not to wince a little at the large cast’s often over-exaggerated delivery and physicality, which seemed so catered to small children that it was a bit alienating of the audience’s more mature members.
From absurdly overdone, inconsistent and sometimes completely bizarre accents to some profoundly overacted attempts at physical comedy, subtlety is not exactly a key element of this production. Although I understand the intention behind making the show as kid-friendly as possible, I was a bit disappointed because I so enjoyed the 2019 production, which I thought was a bit more even-keeled while still being lively, joyous and family-friendly.
The unrelentingly high-energy performances and breathless pace of the current show, combined with booming, excessively echoey sound design and aggressively vibrant visuals, got a little overwhelming by the end. At times it was a bit of a sensory overload.
That’s not to say there aren’t things to like about this production. Though sometimes too in-your-face, most of the acting is not necessarily bad, and some of the performances are quite delightful. The child actors playing Tiny Tim and making up the ensemble of other youthful characters like Bob Cratchit’s daughters and young Scrooge’s beloved sister Fan are both adorable and surprisingly versatile given their young ages and the number of different roles they play.
And Bryce Kemph shines as Scrooge. Though quite animated throughout most of his two-hour performance, Kemph is also capable of evoking genuine, heart-wrenching emotion in the play’s more raw and moving scenes. Although it is hard not to compare him to the supremely talented T2 favorite James Taylor Odom, who I thought was perfectly cast in the role in the 2019 production that is so near to my heart, it’s hard to deny that Kemph makes a talented and loveable Scrooge.
Another element I enjoyed was that, unless I am mistaken, some additional short scenes and narrated vignettes from Dickens’ original work that were not a part of the original 2019 production were included in this year’s. As a fan of the novella, it was delightful to see more of it come to life on the stage. I also enjoyed watching the stunning, ornate library-themed set finally occupy its rightful, predestined spot onstage in an actual library. The beautifully and cleverly designed set pieces that have been a mainstay of the show since its first run were as delightful as ever, and they fit the space perfectly.
Overall, TheatreSquared’s “A Christmas Carol” is not the most breathtaking theatrical production you will ever experience by a longshot, but it does not pretend to be. It is over-the-top, loud, goofy and sometimes downright chaotic. But if you manage your expectations, catching a performance will still make for a fun and festive holiday activity for any local family, especially one with small children.
“A Christmas Carol” runs through Dec. 26 at the Fayetteville Public Library on West Mountain Street. In-person and streaming tickets are available online. As part of T2’s 30 Under 30 program, 30 tickets to each performance are set aside at a price of $10 for students and those under 30.