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“Merry Little” Christmas Carol at VSC Hits All the Right Notes

Words by Nathan Jacques. Images courtesy of the Virginia Stage Company.

Spoiler warnings throughout for the book published in 1843. Be ye warned!

Marley may have been dead to begin with, but A Merry Little Christmas Carol at the Virginia Stage Company’s historic Wells Theatre is full of life.

Charles Dickens’ classic work is, in a word, timeless. The same can be said of the exquisitely breathtaking architecture of the Wells Theatre in Downtown Norfolk, just across the street from the (semi) bustling MacArthur Mall. If an award for “most beautiful venue” found its way into the Hampton Roads public consciousness, the Wells could count on my vote.

Guests were greeted not only by friendly staff but also the comforting aroma of apples and cinnamon – a simple little touch that goes a long way in making guests feel “at home”. The Wells is the ideal venue for this classic work – and this rendition lovingly updated by Mark Shanahan- and has been for many years; the Virginia Stage Company has made A Christmas Carol a staple in previous seasons, but this year marks their first “Merry Little” Christmas Carol that hits all the right notes in more ways than one.

This is one of the most impressive, versatile casts I have ever had the pleasure of watching in the area. Beatty Barnes Jr. leads the company as the crotchety miser Ebenezer Scrooge whose name has, despite his iconic redemption, found itself synonymous with being a detestable cheapskate. Mr. Barnes’ performance is an absolute treat to behold. Scrooge’s journey to redemption is not an easy one, and neither is playing the role. Sparks of Scrooge’s humanity glimmer faintly at the sound of a familiar song, spiraling into a night of emotion, realization, and redemption. It’s a tale that feels as old as time but seeing this version of Scrooge begin to unravel his own twisted psyche via the aid of the spirits is, in a word, spectacular. Mr. Barnes is clearly a master of his craft, and this performance of the classic character is indelible.

The ensemble of A Christmas Carol generally plays the important role of foil to Scrooge, but this cast is truly something special. This surprisingly small company is comprised not only of talented actors, but musicians, dancers, and singers as well, each earning their own unique place in the storied history of A Christmas Carol and the hearts of theatregoers through their work. Each unforgettable in their own way, this ensemble delivered, with special congratulations extended to the two particularly young performers, Mesgana Jackson and Adalee Alt, in the cast. The players also include Dustin Sullivan, Kara Mikula, Matthew Janisse, Kai B. White, and Refiye Tappan, who all impressively embody the cheery townsfolk of the present, the friends and family Scrooge once knew, and the ghosts who come to warn him of the fate that awaits him if he does not change. Costume changes between characters are seamless (see what I did there?) and, paired with the quirks each character has, makes for believable transitions into each. I never once thought any two characters were too alike. Bravo! This is not an easy feat.

A Merry Little Christmas Carol perfectly balances elements of comedy and drama, never falling too far into either. I must address a few issues, however. Many poignant moments were perforated by the incessant babbling of a very young child. This is obviously not a problem exclusive to any one venue, but one must question the decision to bring children that young into a live performance. In the words of old Fezziwig, “Christmas is for children”, but I urge not only Virginia Stage Company, but venues everywhere to reconsider their policies on admitting children below certain ages. I also implore theatre-going parents to evaluate their children’s behavior before deciding to bring them to a performance. Allowing your child to scream, whine, and talk throughout the show is terribly inconsiderate.

The set is impressively minimalistic. Consisting of wooden platforms, barrels, beams, and ropes, the cast seems to have very little to play with but manages to pull off some cheeky gags and sometimes terrifying imagery with what is present. There are a few more surprises that will remain unnamed, as they are better to be seen than read about. The genius execution of a certain scene in the first act shook me to my very core.

A few other intense moments were interrupted by a staff member walking up the aisle with a flashlight asking people to don their facemasks. I understand that this policy is instated to keep cast, crew, and audience safe, and I applaud their dedication to safety, but this ripped myself and many others around me out of the scene completely. This was not even an effective practice, as many people sneakily removed their masks once the staff member was gone. The efficacy of such enforcement practices must also be reevaluated when what I call the “concessions clause” is in effect; people often circumvent having to wear a mask by perpetually eating and drinking. It’s not an easy issue to fix.

After a while, a security guard (?) was posted up at the bottom right corner of the stage, observing the audience. This gentleman didn’t seem to be doing anything and often found himself awkward illuminated by stage lights. This, I did not understand, and found very distracting. I’m sure the poor fellow wasn’t too pleased with it, either – at least credit him in the playbill, as he was pretty much part of the show. Other than these minor annoyances, A Merry Little Christmas Carol is a fantastic way to kick off your holiday festivities if you haven’t done so already.

I had never attended the previous iterations of the work at the Wells. This was my first experience with it at Virginia Stage Company. Having seen it performed at the historic Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C., I must confess that this performance is on-par with that production, if not better. I can comfortably see this version of Dickens’ beloved tale of redemption becoming a cherished holiday tradition for folks across the area, myself included.

A Merry Little Christmas Carol runs from now until Christmas. Tickets can be purchased directly from

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