Move over, Muppets: Theatre Calgary might be here to threaten your claim to the definitive adaptation of A Christmas Carol.
So says the team behind the enormous undertaking, which features a large cast, original music, inventive costumes, and scenographic designs that rival those on Mirvish Way. A Christmas Carol has been a Theatre Calgary tradition for 35 years, with numerous casts, adaptations, and changes along the way. The pandemic moved the play online, then back to the stage in a smaller, more stripped-down version in 2021. While the tradition persisted, it changed shape, adapting to the realities of producing theatre under imperfect conditions.
2023 marks the return of A Christmas Carol in all its glory, complete with children scampering across the stage and several highly complex group scenes. I flew to Calgary to attend opening night, in a whirlwind trip I’m eager to repeat for subsequent Carol viewings.
Charles Dickens’ lesson stays the same in this play-with-songs adaptation by Geoffrey Simon Brown: the holidays are a time for generosity, forgiveness, and family.
“In many ways, the story remains relevant,” said Stafford Arima, artistic director of Theatre Calgary and director of A Christmas Carol. “Perhaps even more today, as we see the difference between the haves and the have-nots.”
He’s got a point. While the tale of poverty and Christmastime redemption will always be timely, it’s hard not to see the echoes of Scrooge’s greed in Galen Weston or Jeff Bezos this year. 2023 has been the year of depleted food banks; precariously housed international students and refugees; an economic bubble on the cusp of bursting forever. Bah humbug, indeed.
“We as a society, much more than they did in the Victorian days, have opportunities to look at the past, the present, and the future and really make some decisions about how we were before,” said Arima. “I think for our audiences, it’s going to be an exhilarating moment to see this many bodies onstage. This year, with everything going on in the planet, we knew it was important to bring back what we call the ‘big’ version of A Christmas Carol, along with our Theatre for All initiative, which prices all orchestra seats at $39. This feels like an important year.”
Arima’s right — there are a whole lot of bodies onstage. But it’s the work they’re doing that lingers in my memory as I write this piece. Allison Lynch opens the show as an unnamed narrator, but soon enough, she’s the production’s fiddle player, following around Doug McKeag’s dastardly Scrooge while playing. And in fact, it’s her own underscoring that she’s playing — she’s credited as the production’s composer and music director.
“I knew this was going to be a big version of the show,” Lynch said in an interview. “I wanted to honour that by using a big orchestral sound, which is why I used the full score of flutes and strings and brass and all of that. The fiddler being written into the script was a great opportunity to use my Irish fiddling skills.”
Lynch has appeared in Theatre Calgary’s A Christmas Carol a few times, though not always as a musician. She enjoys getting to experience projects as both a designer and performer: “I get to see the creation process from a couple of different lenses,” she said. “It’s really neat to see the work from both perspectives.
“People say that if you don’t notice the sound design, it’s good, and I don’t necessarily agree with that,” she continued. “It should be noticed in a way that supports the story. It shouldn’t just disappear into the background.”
Lynch added that Theatre Calgary recently obtained a new sound system, which made designing the soundscape for A Christmas Carol even more of a thrill. “I got to incorporate singing in a way that works with the joy of what’s happening in the moment,” she said. “The composed music gets a chance to be very present.”
Meanwhile, McKeag has the almighty task of playing Scrooge — with Patrick Stewart, Alistair Sim, and the Muppet-surrounded Michael Caine to live up to.
“It’s been nothing short of amazing, and very life-affirming and career-affirming, to be handed a plum role and one I really believe in,” he said, sharing the joys of his first year playing Scrooge after portraying a handful of other characters in previous years. “Scrooge is such a strange and wonderful character, and I love working with Theatre Calgary.
“I don’t think Scrooge is evil,” he added, speaking on the psychology of one of Dickens’ most misunderstood anti-heroes. “He’s hurting. He’s got trauma from his youth. I didn’t want to start from a point of evil, as it’s hard to bring someone back from that. He’s developed a crust around himself which has to be broken down for his redemption at the end.”
McKeag says he wants “everybody to find something about themselves in Scrooge” — even if that means looking deep inside yourself and making changes.
“If you fall short in any human category, I want you to be able to see yourself,” he said. “It’s never too late to change. It’s never too late to learn something, or to care more about your community…Calgary is a wealthy oil town, and Scrooge is a reminder for us of what can happen when you change, and get the chance to give your wealth away.
“The great luxury of having wealth is you can do something with it. Every town needs a reminder of that.”
A Christmas Carol runs at Theatre Calgary until December 31. Tickets are available here.