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Theatre in Review: A Christmas Carol (Lyceum Theatre)/Einstein's Dreams (59E59)

Top: Cast of A Christmas Carol. Photo: Joan Marcus. Bottom: Zal Owen. Einstein's Dreams. Photo: Richard Termine.

It's been a week of signs and wonders in the theatre, featuring dramas in which magic and science seem oddly like mirror images of each other. If, this early in the holiday season, you're already feeling up to your neck in tinsel, consider taking two hours' refuge at the Lyceum, where the Charles Dickens classic is being given a marvelously theatrical and blessedly glitz-free presentation. Matthew Warchus' staging -- from London's Old Vic -- is a case of back-to-basics storytelling that honors the darkness of Dickens' Christmas ghost story, if only to highlight its essential magic and deeply felt sentiment.

Jack Thorne's adaptation features several innovations that deepen the psychological portrait of Ebenezer Scrooge -- with new details about his abusive, spendthrift father and Belle, the woman who got away -- providing new insights into his miserly ways. This is a highly Freudian interpretation in which Scrooge's childhood traumas haunt him into late adulthood; in context, it is perhaps not surprising that the Ghost of Christmas Future is represented by the phantom of Scrooge's late, beloved sister, Fan. In addition, the role of Fred, Scrooge's loving nephew, has been expanded, making him a persistent ambassador for holiday cheer. One excision -- which I regret -- is the loss of the neighborhood jackals who, after Scrooge's death, callously rifle through his belongings, looking for sellable items. But, in this version, it might prove to be rather off-topic; the focus throughout is on restoring Scrooge to the circle of family and friends that he abandoned in the cold pursuit of wealth.

Otherwise, this is A Christmas Carol as you remember it, in a thoughtfully directed, superbly designed production that is filled with clever staging touches. The set designer, Rob Howell, has filled the auditorium with hanging lanterns that give the room a candlelit warmth. Onstage, however, disused lanterns pile up, a chilling image of Industrial Revolution desolation. Dangling from overhead are dozens of chains -- which, no doubt, bring to mind the spirit of Jacob Marley, but also figure in a Christmas morning coup de théâtre that provides a stunning accompaniment to the resurrection of Scrooge's soul. (Another neat touch is the collection of boxes pulled out of the deck to create the grim furnishings of Scrooge's office.) Howell's costumes are gorgeous period creations, heightened at times by a touch of the fantastic: Note the loose threads sticking out of Scrooge's frock coat -- a testament to his skinflint ways -- and the colorfully patched-together ensembles for the Christmas ghosts. Hugh Vanstone's excellent lighting uses strongly articulated systems coming from multiple angles to carve out each scene. In a production that features nearly constant underscoring -- combining Christopher Nightingale's original compositions with his arrangements of period Christmas songs -- Simon Baker's sound design plays an especially crucial role.

Even with a shock of unruly gray hair and ragged clothes, Campbell Scott's Scrooge retains enough vigor and good looks for us to believe that he isn't beyond redemption. He is a study in emotional deprivation: He has allowed everyone he loved to slip through his fingers and his heart is frozen by so many self-inflicted losses; he provides the production with its wounded and compelling heart. Andrea Martin is amusing and faintly eerie as the Ghost of Christmas Past, who always seems to know more than she admits, and LaChanze, as the Ghost of Christmas Present, is a tart-tongued, golden-voiced presence.

This Christmas Carol is a true ensemble project, and among those making fine contributions are Dashiell Eaves as the guileless, infinitely charitable Bob Cratchit; Chris Hoch, doubling as Scrooge senior and Marley, the latter trailing chains that span the depth of the stage; Brandon Gill, bringing festivity to each appearance as Fred; Sarah Hunt as Belle, particularly in a newly imagined encounter, late in the evening, that provides Scrooge with a bracing, three-hankie reckoning; and Rachel Prather as Fan, urgently warning Scrooge to change his ways before it is too late. The role of Tiny Tim is double-cast; at the performance I attended, Jai Ram Srinivasan was as sweet as a Christmas pudding.

I must mention two additional fresh ideas: Following his change of heart, Scrooge asks Fred to transfer his family's Christmas feast to the home of the Cratchits, a monumental undertaking that involves a number of amusingly conceived food-delivery systems. I'll say no more, except to note that you may find yourself passing a platter or two; you might even be invited onstage to bring out a towering ziggurat of gelatin for the dessert. Thorne also adds a final face-off between Scrooge and all three ghosts -- Marley gets a word in, as well -- that indicates that the story's traditional happy ending hasn't yet occurred, that it is up to Scrooge to realize it. It's an ideal way to end an entertainment that captures the true spirit of the season.

That image of Scrooge looking at representatives of the past, present, and future would probably appeal to Albert Einstein, inventor of a little theory you may have heard something about. Einstein's Dreams, the new musical from Prospect Theater Company, posits the notion that the theory of relatively was pitched to Einstein by Josette, a fetching minx who inhabited his dreams. The story, based on a novel by Alan Lightman, unfolds in 1905, mostly in the patent office where Einstein works. Unhappily married, he spends most of his nights asleep at his desk; each evening, Josette appears out of the ether, leading production numbers that illustrate different aspects of time's mutability. These include the self-explanatory "The End of Time"; "The Great Greats," about the possibility of living forever; "If You Wait One Moment, I'll Check," about existing only in the present with no memory of the past; and "High Speed Motion," which posits the notion that time moves more slowly the faster one moves. It's Physics 101 for audience members whose study of the classics is confined to Hadestown and the knowledge of the Belle Époque comes from Moulin Rouge.

Einstein, desirous of escaping his marriage to his first wife, is convinced that Josette "exists somewhere, I feel it. If only I understood time and space better, I could be with her." It's a notion that gets a skeptical reaction from his best friend, Besso, who keeps reminding him that he is "the most promising physicist in Berne." Meanwhile, Josette, acting as a guide, transports Einstein into the future, where, as a newly minted celebrity, he wins over the press with "The Relativity Rag" and urges Franklin D. Roosevelt to investigate nuclear chain reactions to defeat the Axis powers. It will only confuse you when I add that Josette, who remains forever out of his reach, sometimes appears to be a twelve-year-old-girl or that, sometimes, two versions of Josette appear simultaneously. As Einstein himself wonders, "Why isn't love as easy as physics?"

Why, indeed. Einstein's Dreams would dearly love to do for relativity what Sunday in the Park with George did for pointillism, but I'm afraid that for the authors -- book and lyrics by Joanne Sydney Lessner, music and lyrics by Joshua Rosenblum -- deal with infinitely complex ideas in strictly musical comedy terms. The dream relationship between Einstein and Josette is a filmy, insubstantial thing -- he is really talking himself, not a great basis for romance. It doesn't help that Josette is like something out of a Franz Lehar operetta, a merry widow who has mislaid her champagne glass. (That so little consideration is given to poor Mrs. Einstein -- she barely rates a cameo appearance -- does little to make Josette more palatable.)

Also, given that his ideas will unleash a revolution in human consciousness, the show is notable for its lack of wonder. Einstein says things like "Maybe I need to reconceive time altogether" with all the verve of someone resolving to stop on the way home for a quart of milk. Some of the numbers are clever -- even the gimmicky "Now Backwards Moving is Time," which features lyrics written in reverse -- and one or two are touching, but in a show that cries out for a visionary, highly individual voice, they are dismayingly conventional. Much of Einstein's Dreams plays like a revue put on by the physics department at MIT.

As Einstein, Zal Owen does what he can with mouthfuls like "No, no, I wasn't working on patents. I was thinking about the contradictions in electromagnetism," but one never feels that his mind is on fire -- which might excuse at least some of his callous, self-absorbed behavior or his mooning over the imaginary Josette. As Josette, Alexandra Silber swans around in Sidney Shannon's flattering costumes, singingly nicely and acting mysterious, but the role has nothing to it. Brennan Caldwell is solid in the thankless role of Besso, who really, truly gets to say the line "Nice work, Einstein," thus giving birth to a wisecrack that exists to this day.

The production, directed with reasonable efficiency by Cara Reichel, unfolds on a two-level set by Isabel Mengyuan Le, which leaves little room for the large cast to maneuver. Placed on the gallery level is an enormous disk that serves as a screen for David Bengali's lovely, surreal images of circular forests, blood-red violins, and clockfaces in various styles. Herrick Goldman's lighting addresses the play's multiple levels of reality by pulling out the stops, including attractive saturated color washes, spinning patterns, and chases on light bars placed behind the set's diaphanous walls. Kevin Heard's sound is remarkably clear and transparent, even when the actors are pursuing multiple melodic lines.

The ambition behind Einstein's Dreams is intriguing, but the execution doesn't excite. If you're going to give a revolutionary thinker his theatrical due, you have to give your imagination more of a workout. -- David Barbour

(21 November 2019)

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