“Bah, humbug!” is the opposite reaction I had after attending Saturday's performance of the Spotlight Theatre’s A Christmas Carol: The Musical, which is arguably the cleanest, best-sounding, most visually pleasing presentation I've yet seen at the venue. Director Adam Sanders and his team of designers put together a sleek, refreshing production that makes me excited for future shows that can explore theatre-making in this space in similarly different ways.
If you aren’t familiar with this most-famous of Christmas tales, composer Alan Menken's musical adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic follows Ebenezer Scrooge, a greedy and wealthy Englishman who is haunted by ghosts of his past, present, and future. Over the course of the story, he heals, grows, and opens his heart (and pockets) just in time for Christmas. Sanders' company, meanwhile, seemed to have a lot of warm holiday heart and joy to put into this production, and it showed.
I've stated in previous Spotlight Theatre reviews that there were some focus and sound-balance issues involving lighting and sound balance. However, Chrsitmas Carol's sound was a major improvement since I last visited the venue. There were still a few problems, but things seem to be moving in the right direction, and I applaud the attention paid in resolving the kinks. While there were a few moments in which actors weren't in their light, the lighting focus and support of visibility onstage saw significant upticks, as well; this show definitely boasts the best lighting design I've seen in this space. Spotlight Theatre co-owner Brent Tubbs utilizes a lot of side-lighting, and I think the style, design, and staging of this show paired well with Tubbs’ design setup.
One unique lighting aspect was the show's use of an array of lanterns strung above the stage, in the actors’ hands, and even embedded into costumes. It's worth noting this concept is very similar to the 2019 Broadway revival of the work, but Spotlight’s creative team took their own spin on it, and it worked well.
The effectively stripped-down set, also designed and built by Tubbs, was a single elevated platform center stage with a number of wooden chairs, with a London silhouette facade and the exposed back wall of the theatre looming behind, adding to the moody theatricality of the piece. I especially enjoyed the beautiful pre-show look, with the chairs set in disarray with a single pin-light on one set center stage and the lanterns flickering above. The only major thing I disliked about the design was the rather fake-looking furnace, which was painted completely differently from the rest of the set.
Heather Blair’s costume design included a light-up, glowing dress of Christmas Past, a frighteningly fun chorus of chained ghosts, and beautiful gowns and street-wear. My favorite creation was the impressively large Ghost of Christmas Future, which added to the most visually stunning moment of the show: a looming, decrepit puppet with scary red eyes draped in ragged clothes. The way the puppet moved with choreography, the rolling of the fog, and the deep shadows of light across the figure and scene was stunning. Near the end of the scene, however, the puppet came far downstage and joined the staged movement, which became too much and took me out of the moment. Similarly, Bob Cratchit’s red pants distractingly veered from the show’s simplicity, but these issues certainly didn’t ruin the overall show experience.
What heightened this Christmas Carol even further was the production’s wonderful ensemble of performers. While I don’t have enough words to expound upon all of the large cast's performances, Sanders' entire company was committed and brought great life and energy to this old tale.
Ebenezer Scrooge, portrayed here by Doug Alderman, almost never left the stage, and the actor brought an entertaining dry wit to the piece. His vocals and transition from “Bah, humbug!” to oozing lots of love were beautifully performed. Alderman didn’t overdo it, and the ghostly atmosphere blended perfectly with his controlled performance.
The ghosts that haunted Scrooge over the course of the piece were also triumphant standouts, each of them delivered with heaps of theatrical delight. The ghost of Jacob Marley (Noah Hill), Scrooge’s duped former business partner, provided a zany performance fitted with dangling chains and booming ghouly cries. Hill also portrays younger alive, non-skeletally miserable versions of Marley, bringing great range to his multiple versions of the character. Melodie Hoffman, as Ghost of Christmas Past, brought us an absolutely gorgeous voice, clarity, and charm, supporting and carrying the brightness of some of Scrooge’s softer memories. And Sara Wegener's Ghost of Christmas Present was the most showy of the ghouls, also reflecting some of the charm in Dickens' rather dark tale.
Other members of the company more than worth mentioning are Topher Elliott and Amber Whitaker, who have the most beautiful moment onstage as they respectively play young Scrooge and Emily (his wife before the guy became jaded and cranky). The pair were radiant together, with voices to match. In addition, the power-couple blend of Bethany Sanders’ choreography and Adam Sanders’ staging was clean and dynamic, featuring elegant dancing, ghostly movement, and wonderful stage pictures that wrapped around the simple set in interesting ways.
A Christmas Carol: The Musical is not like anything you’ve seen in the Spotlight Theatre before, with its company of artists' work highly commendable. It was a true delight to witness, and I look forward to what continued improvements will follow in 2024 after this show's heightened production quality. What a great way to end the year.
A Christmas Carol: The Musical runs at the Spotlight Theatre (1800 Seventh Avenue, Moline IL) through December 10, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)912-7647 and visiting TheSpotlightTheatreQC.com.