“A Christmas Carol” At The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Things were very different when Charles Dickens wrote his famous story of Ebenezer Scrooge and Tiny Tim in 1843: workhouses, orphanages and debtors prisons were the only “social safety net” back then. And all too often those were the places you’d meet a sickly, squalid end.

But Dickens always preferred to include benevolence for contrast, so kindness and charity happen to be the brightest virtues balancing out “A Christmas Carol.” Those qualities shine brightly with this stage adaptation in a beautiful, new production for the Rep’s 50th Season. John Rensenhouse is fearsome as the miserly lender, and everyone else has to work doubly hard to offset his glowering influence as Christmas sets in.

Director Steven Woolf has rounded up some of St. Louis’s best actors for this joyful two-hour show, replete with lovely singing, magical ghosts and highly naturalistic performances. Susie Wall, Jerry Vogel, Amy Loui, Ben Nordstrom, Peggy Billo and Alan Knoll are part of this great assembly of talent, all under one roof.

Michael James Reed plays Bob Cratchitt, Scrooge’s assistant and chief punching-bag, who appears miraculously equipped with endless allowances for his boss no matter the level of cruelty. His only devastated moment of doubt comes in a hazy “Christmas Future,” where the worst has happened.  That’s when Cratchitt somehow struggles to a new summit of Zen in this deeply felt story.

When Scrooge’s own famous struggle toward perfection begins, we get a remarkably clear view of his early path to a lonely, mean life. David H. Bell’s script (which dates back to either 1999 or 2006, depending on your copy) is full of bright twists and turns, but also makes young Scrooge’s descent into wickedness a frightening series of bad choices, here through actor Landon Tate Boyle (as “Young Scrooge”) in visions of Christmas past.

Joneal Joplin, the dean of St. Louis actors, plays Jacob Marley, who snatches young Scrooge from a much happier job and sends both his employer and wife to debtor’s prisons. It’s clear Scrooge has been living under a cloud already, but in this version of “A Christmas Carol,” it’s clear he never really takes charge of his own love or happiness, and those parts simply die.

Until, of course, Marley’s ghost comes back to haunt him, and three great wraiths guide him to spiritual wholeness. It’s a transformation made great in Mr. Rensenhouse’s enviable performance.

“A Christmas Carol” plays through Dec. 24, 2016 at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. For more information visit The Repertory Theatre’s website.

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