You can’t cross any intersection in downtown Norfolk this month and not see that A Christmas Carol and The Santaland Diaries are back at Virginia Stage Company at the Wells Theatre. At this time of year when travel or dinner preparations, shopping, school concerts and recitals all want a piece of your time, it is nice to spend a few hours observing Ebenezer Scrooge’s timeless journey through Christmases past, present, and future.
While VSC has produced Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol 24 times in 40 years, the current production, adapted and directed by VSC’s Director of Public Works Patrick Mullins, is in its second year at The Wells. The scenery by Matthew Allar and costumes by Jeni Schaefer set the stage for Dickensian London, and the lighting by Akin Ritchie and full stage projections– newly designed this year by Samuel W. Flint– effectively transport the viewer along with Scrooge on his journey, snowing and swirling along with the story. The performance this reviewer attended had a couple of small technical problems with the sound: a wireless microphone that cut in and out during the scene with Fan and Young Ebenezer, and one or two microphones were noticeably louder than the rest in the large group songs.
Overall, the company of A Christmas Carol was a tight ensemble. To the credit of director Mullins, they seamlessly shared lines of narration throughout the play and came together for several musical numbers, most notably a simple carol that builds into a vibrant medley to close the first act, topped with Amma Osei’s soaring descants. The musical arrangements by Roy George ranged from solemn chorale to joyous contemporary, helping to make the age-old story accessible to a present-day audience, though this reviewer prefers more traditional songs and arrangements with A Christmas Carol. It was clear, through very enunciated consonants, that Dialect Coach Eric Harrell had worked with all members of the company, but there were a few who struggled to maintain consistency from scene to scene, particularly the younger members of the cast.
In light of our currently polarized political climate in this country, and the continued struggle with wealth inequality, it is nice to return to this simple story and experience Scrooge’s catharsis for ourselves. There is still a lot we can learn from this 175-year-old story.
But the heartwarming tale isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. If you prefer more snark in your season, then The Santaland Diaries may be right for you. Adapted from David Sedaris’s stories based on his experience working as an Elf in Macy’s Santaland in New York City, this is a holiday show for the grown ups, describing the seedy underbelly of the most wonderful time of the year.
This one-man show is directed by Tom Quaintance, VSC’s Producing Artistic Director, and features Tom Detrinis as Crumpet The Elf. This is a show that obliterates the fourth wall. Detrinis, as Crumpet, is refreshingly honest about the hidden secrets of being a department store elf, taking the audience through the interview and training process, choosing (and reconsidering) his elf name, and navigating parents and Santas in the midst of the stressful holidays.
The set of A Christmas Carol provides the backdrop to Santaland, requiring suspension of disbelief, particularly if you’re viewing the two as a double feature, but Detrinis deftly guides the audience through the various corners of Santaland, with each part of the story being told from a different area on the stage.
He is joined onstage by Roy George, who brings an understated humor to his role as keyboard and sound effect player as well as the department store PA announcer, marks the passage of time and heightens the stakes as he announces fewer and fewer shopping days until Christmas.
As Crumpet continues to tell his stories, the theatre begins to feel like a living room where a friend or cousin is telling stories about his colorful coworkers and zany customers. A drink like the Christmas Carol-themed Fezziwig Nog or Cratchit Cider from the lobby bar makes the evening more like an intimate holiday gathering. As an experienced Crumpet (in Buffalo and Long Island, NY), Detrinis quickly develops a rapport with the tipsy crowd, and he truly shines when his story telling begins to resemble sharing a secret.
At the end of the day, The Santaland Diaries is a fun diversion for the grown-ups in an otherwise children-centric performance season.
A Christmas Carol runs through the 24th at the Wells, while Santaland only runs until the 16th – you can get tickets on the Virginia Stage Company’s website!