Joy, tears, ghosts infuse vibrant new Carol

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Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow! The San Francisco cast of the new Tony Award-winning adaptation of A Christmas Carol warm up winter nights on the stage of the Golden Gate Theatre. Below: Francois Battiste as Scrooge embraces Tiny Tim. Photos by Joan Marcus

We’ve experienced A Christmas Carol in so many ways, so many times over so many years that we’re all a little numb to the frights and frissons of the Charles Dickens perennial. As much as I love the story – and especially the metaphorical kick to the groin of the greediest and meanest among us – I sometimes dread the thought of having to watch gnarled old Scrooge get smoothed out by Jacob Marley and the ghosts of Past, Present and Future.

Happy to report, then, that the new adaptation of A Christmas Carol by Jack Thorne (a co-author of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child theatrical enterprise, which, incidentally, resumes performances at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre Jan. 11) has a lot of new fizz in its Fezziwig. Now at the Golden Gate Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season, this Carol is aggressive in its approach as both a ghost story and a psychological excavation of Scrooge, with a whole lot of merriment (and snow) and zippy theatricality (and snow) and music (and did I mention snow?) thrown in for good measure.

At about 2 1/2 hours (including intermission), this version strips out as much as it adds. Directors Matthew Warchus (original London and Broadway productions) and Jamie Manton (this production) blends straightforward storytelling by the ensemble with fully dramatized scenes from Scrooge’s dark night of the soul. The bones of the story are very much as Dickens constructed them, but Thorne goes deeper into why Scrooge turned out the way he did. An abusive, alcoholic, debt-ridden father seems to be the biggest factor, but we also spend time with Scrooge as a young man falling in love with Mr. Fezziwig’s daughter, Belle, and then essentially abandoning her because he discovered the lure of money (and hoarding it) instead.

What’s really interesting about Thorne’s adaptation is not so much the rather easily configured roots of Scrooge’s misery and miserliness (blame the parents!) but rather the way the people from Scrooge’s past are allowed to confront him. For instance, we usually only see Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s dead partner, at the beginning of the ghostly visits. But here, Scrooge and his only friend get to compare notes on the benefits of redemption once Scrooge realizes the error of his ways. Scrooge also gets to find closure with the only woman he ever loved (and she is more generous to him than he probably deserves), which lends an affecting touch.

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The striking set by Rob Howell (who also designed the costumes) takes us into a dark netherworld of swirling smoke (effectively sliced by Hugh Vanstone’s razor-sharp lights), piles of garbage, chains descending from the heavens and hundreds of lanterns hanging above the stage and out into the auditorium.

The 15-member ensemble sings, dances, narrates and embodies the characters with a flashy panache that keeps the show vibrating at a pretty high level. Act 1, as expected, is pretty heavy and dark, but the real genius of the show is how Act 2 just keeps ratcheting up the happiness in sometimes surprising ways. Without spoiling anything, let’s just say the actors make full use of the theater, on stage and off, and that your white Christmas dreams can come true – temporarily anyway – multiple times.

Any Christmas Carol is only as strong as its Scrooge, and Francois Battiste gives a mighty performance. His Scrooge is always a few steps ahead of the ghosts as he steadfastly refuses to succumb to their dime store psychoanalyzing and their sentimental tricks to soften his coal-hard heart. He gets that he’s a bad guy and owns his choices, and that makes his transformation all the more satisfying. He’s the kind of horrible person who stands firm in his greed, all the while justifying what a great person he is and what a vital service (moneylending aka money gouging) he provides to the world. These are the people – and we hear from them and their acolytes every day in the real world – who never seem to suffer from the pain and misery their greed causes in the world.

But then something clicks in Scrooge. Call it the “Tiny Tim” effect, but if every Tiny Tim could be as endearing as Gabriel Kong (who played the role on opening night and shares it with Charlie Berghoffer IV), the world would likely be a better place. The same is true about this production’s effective ghosts: we need Nancy Opel (Past), Amber Iman (Present) and Monica Ho (Future) to maybe focus some of their work outside the theater in certain political and judicial locations around the country.

There’s not a sour note in the entire cast, and the pleasure they offer, especially when they’re making the house ring with their handbells (lovely musical direction by Matt Smart), is genuine and heartfelt. This is a Carol that lands its punches and then lifts us up with joy. Just when we think it’s over, the volume of that joy gets turned up a little more and then a little more until the darkness and pain are just memories.

A Christmas Carol continues through Dec. 26 at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco, as part of the BroadwaySF season. Tickets are $56-$256 (subject to change). Call 888-746-1799 or visit
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Delightful Matilda mostly avoids chokey

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The young ensemble of the national Broadway touring company of Matilda the Musical makes the song “When I Grow Up” really swing at the Orpheum Theatre. Below: Gabrielle Gutierrez plays the triumphant pint-sized super hero, Matilda. Photos by Joan Marcus

What is it about Roald Dahl that makes his books so ripe for adaptation? Probably the most famous book-to-screen-to-stage example from his canon is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which became a beloved movie musical in 1971 (with the title shifted to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory). The 2005 remake by Tim Burton is much less beloved, and the splashy 2013 West End stage musical has been a big, long-running hit and will hit Broadway in the upcoming season.

Others of Dahl’s stories have been turned into movies: James and the Giant Peach, The Witches and Fantastic Mr. Fox among others. Dahl’s rich imagination, edgy sensibility and ability to delight (and occasionally disgust) children without pandering to them makes his work ripe for adaptation. His 1998 novel Matilda became a movie in 1996, and an initial musical adaptation in 1990 went nowhere. But Matilda, it seems, was destined to be a musical. The Royal Shakespeare Company commissioned Australian actor-musiciain-comedian and Dahl fan Tim Minchin to compose the score and writer Dennis Kelly to adapt the book. The resulting musical, cleverly titled Matilda the Musical debuted in 2010, stormed the West End and Broadway (still running in both locations) and is now touring the U.S.

The greatest compliment you can pay to the musical is that it really feels like Dahl. It’s big and dark and bursting with grotesqueries, but it’s sweet at heart without being cloying. Minchin’s sharp, tuneful, highly enjoyable score is a major factor, and Kelly’s book hews closely to the novel but makes some smart tweaks along the way. Director Matthew Warchus wrangles the adorability of his child actors and lets them shine, especially amid the overplayed (and very funny) horrible adults like Miss Trunchbull, the meanest headmistress imaginable (she puts misbehaving children in mini-prison called “chokey”) and a former Olympic hammer-throwing champion.

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On tour, part of the SHN season at the Orpheum Theatre, Trunchbull is played by Bryce Ryness, who has the tremendous skill of underplaying and overplaying at the same time. It’s genius, and he gets laughs just from standing there in his Trunchbull drag (costumes are by Rob Howell, who also designed the set full of wooden letter blocks and tiles).

The trenchant thing about Matilda is that it’s a love story for two people who need each other but haven’t quite found each other or a way to be together. It’s not a romantic love story – more like a family of choice (as opposed to blood) in its nascent stage.

Our protagonist is precocious Matilda (played at Saturday’s performance by the unbelievably adorable Gabrielle Gutierrez, who alternates in the role with Mia Sinclair Jenness and Mabel Tyler), a 5-year-old with genius tendencies. She has taught herself to read and worked her way through Dickens. If she picks up a foreign novel, she teaches herself the language so she can appreciate the author’s work in her/his native language. A bright light in a dark world, Matilda has the misfortune of having been born to the Wormwoods. Mrs. Wormwood (Cassie Silva) is obsessed with appearance and ballroom dancing (her partner, Rudolpho, played by Jaquez Andre Sims is always good for a laugh). Her father, slimy used car salesman and all-around cheat (the marvelous clown Quinn Mattfeld), calls her “boy” because he so wanted a son he basically denies her very existence. Both Wormwoods are cretins who prefer “telly” and can’t understand why their child wastes time with books.

At school, Matilda fares no better under the tyrannical rule of Agnes Trunchbull, whose delight in torturing the students is as disturbing as it is entertaining (and occasionally hilarious). The only solace Matilda receives in the world comes from a kindly librarian (Ora Jones), whom Matilda regales with stories of daring do and tragic romance, and teacher Miss Honey (Jennifer Blood), whose pedagogical approach involves kindness and patience – the antithesis of the Trunchbull method.

Matilda really is a pint-sized super hero. She will liberate her fellow students, dispatch her family, make mincemeat of Trunchbull and make the world (or her world, anyway) safe for great books. At the height of her powers, she’ll even threaten to turn this story into Stephen King’s Carrie, but then she’ll find the home she deserves, all the while singing some catchy, zippy songs like “When I Grow Up,” “Naughty” and “Revolting Children.”

The only drawback to this touring production is a muddy sound design that, combined with some mushy British accents, renders only about 50 percent of the dialogue/lyrics understandable. The adults fare better than the children, but it’s a significant problem that’s only overcome by the strong acting, which puts the story over in spite of our inability to understand what’s being said or sung. That’s a shame because there’s a whole lot to enjoy here that’s not quite coming across.

[bonus interview]
I had a lively chat with Matilda composer Tim Minchin for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.

Matilda the Musical continues through Aug. 15 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $45-$210 (subject to change). Call 888-746-1799 or visit