Bah, Humbug

review by Kirsten Dika

Heading toward downtown Edmonton on an icy, chilly night, I found myself in a horrible mood and worried about finding parking. I had left my warm, comfortable living room for the privilege of driving on treacherous winter roads, and I was resenting every kilometre being racked up on my Jeep as I navigated what seemed like total incompetence on the part of other drivers.

It was Dec. 02, but I had yet to embrace that Christmas is just around the corner. To me, December represents higher electricity bills, slipping in icy parking lots (I am rather clumsy), and the end of camping and hiking. My wife, on the other hand, is always thrilled about December’s freezing arrival: she sets up our Christmas tree and decorates the entire house on November 12th every year. The distance between Halloween (my favorite) and the descent of Christmas everything is not nearly long enough.

I arrived downtown at 7 pm, and managed to find $10 parking, good till 11pm, a block or so away from my destination: the Citadel Theatre. White lights shone through the theatre’s large windows, and I soon traded the chilly evening air for the theatre’s large, warm, and busy foyer. The swanky interior was decorated with beautiful, colourful lights and Christmas trees, and smiling people buzzed about, purchasing pre-show drinks, and talking with loved ones.

After orienting myself (it was my first visit to the Citadel), I headed toward the Maclab Theatre. The lovely décor continued as I walked deeper into the Citadel: a stunning indoor garden and a great wall of glinting lights were highlights. At the bar outside the theatre’s entrance, I purchased a bottle of ginger-ale for $3.50. There were no vegan snack or coffee options, disappointingly. I could have used a hot drink.

A shining wall of lights near the Maclab Theatre entrance

As I entered the theatre, two different ushers asked if I’d like help finding my seat (yes, please, I am directionally challenged), and soon I was seated centre-right to the stage, about midway up. It was a great view, and I noted that there didn’t appear to be any “bad seats” due to the circular seating around the thrust stage.

Settling into my seat, and unsure what to expect, I prepared for the Citadel’s live production of A Christmas Carol, based on the novella by Charles Dickens and directed by Daryl Cloran. I was surprised when the presenter announced it was opening night. I quickly took a photo of the impressive stage setup: with rows of seating surrounding three sides of the wide thrust stage, the back wall was expertly done up in faux brick, complete with windows, doors, and the all-important clock high above the stage and beneath a large opening where the live band ensemble was visible. I spotted a large upright bass and couldn’t help but smile. I knew very little about the production coming in, and I was thrilled to see the musical accompaniment was to be live.

A Christmas Carol’s stunning set design

I tucked my phone away when requested (no photos and no videos during the production, please), and sat back in my seat as the lights quickly went down before the first act began.

When the lights slowly came up, I caught my first glimpse of the impressive costuming by designer Cory Sincennes. Sweet acapella singing rang out from a group of carolers dressed in mid 1800’s attire. They were promptly chased away by a gruff, grey-haired Ebenezer Scrooge (played by Ted Dykstra) scornful of their song and of their “old-fashioned” costumes. I quickly realized the play was set around the 1950’s and appreciated the nod in the form of the carolers (who would return throughout the play) to the story’s birth era.

The first of the three spirts that visited Scrooge, the Spirit of Christmas Past (played by Lilla Solymos), was a young girl in an ethereal, white dress with sparkling, lit candles on her shoulders. The signature spooky otherworldliness that is often portrayed in renditions of A Christmas Carol was certainly present: the young spirit kindly requested Scrooge abide her commands, and when he resisted, she made it clear refusal was not an option, drawing his body towards her or sending stage props flying with the wave of a hand.

The special effects were impressive and left me wondering just how they were accomplished. When the young spirit begins her journey with Scrooge back through time, they jump from an open, frosty-paned window, and when the spirit is finished with Scrooge, she exits the window, magically gliding out of sight. Similar careful attention to detail, perfect timing of lighting and effects, and stunning live sound was present throughout the play.

The Spirit of Christmas Present, played by John Ullyatt, and the Spirit of Christmas Future, played by Braydon Dowler-Coltman, were equally impressive. The former was a colourful character full of boisterous jokes and guidance for Scrooge, and the latter a great, hulking figure, hauntingly pointing Scrooge towards redemption and humility, flickering lantern in hand.

This adaptation featured a few modern twists that I haven’t seen done before in A Christmas Carol, one being that Scrooges long-suffering employee, Cratchit, is a woman. She is widowed with five children, and Cratchit’s family plays a central role as usual, with tiny Tim Cratchit played by talented young actress Ivy DeGagné.

The cast expertly evoked the full spectrum of emotion from the audience. I heard gasps upon occurrences of the striking special effects, sniffles at the tender moments in the play, and plenty of giggles and scoffs from the fully engaged people around me. I was no exception, both laughing and crying before the show was over. Humour was expertly sprinkled throughout the acts, laughter ringing out regularly from the audience, and frequently intersected with the sad, bitter, and touching moments. It worked very well.

 Scrooge was his usual despicable self – perhaps even worse than expected – a particularly cringey line was, “LEARN. TO. SPEAK. ENGLISH!” as Scrooge responded to a request for directions from a German family passing him by on the street. The ghost of Marley, played by Julien Arnold, was outstanding as he burst forth from Scrooge’s wardrobe, dragging his chains and wailing and pleading with Scrooge.

A particularly spooky moment of the play occurs during Scrooge’s visit with the Ghost of Christmas Future. As Scrooge begs the giant, towering spirit for answers, two small children climb from a trunk on the floor. Both ghostly white and devoid of emotion, the little girl, dressed in petticoat and Mary Janes, is described as Want, and the little boy, dressed in a cowboy costume, complete with flag gun displaying “bang!”, is Ignorance. The creepy portrayals of two dangerous human qualities stuck in my mind, and seemed to have quite an effect on Scrooge, as well.

The stage sets and costuming were simply beautiful. Every child, man and woman in the play looked as though they had stepped from a 1950’s catalog, from their shiny shoes to their charming hairstyles. One of the best parts of the play, though, was the live music and singing, arranged by music director Mishelle Cuttler. Christmas carols were interspersed throughout the production, coming at timely moments, and genuinely evoking my emotions. From the sweet solo singing of children to big-band style, swinging sound, the music was creatively and expertly produced. Drums, bass, and trumpet were a few of the instruments that clearly rang through and suited the songs very well.

By the time the end of the play came around, I realized my sour mood was gone, and I was feeling excited about Christmas. I had laughed with and hoped with the characters, had been brought to tears, both happy and sad, and had contemplated the importance of human connection and family. I truly felt like the spirit of Christmas was something I could feel and almost touch as I sat in my seat enthusiastically clapping for everyone in the production. It was also the first time I’ve been at such a large, social event since the beginning of the pandemic, and the excitement of the actors and musicians at being able to get back to their craft was palpable.

I whole-heartedly recommend going to see A Christmas Carol at the Citadel, playing until December 23, especially if you are feeling a little bah, humbug like I was, and you’d like a helping hand getting excited about the holiday season before us.

Cast and creative team

A Christmas Carol

Citadel Theatre
9828 101A Ave.

see also Douglas MacDonald’s edmontonscene review