Sparse and exquisite, Riverside’s production of ‘A Christmas Carol’ is exactly what we need

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Tara McGovern in Riverside Theatre’s production of ‘A Christmas Carol.’ — Rob Merritt / Riverside Theatre

With its opening this past weekend, Riverside Theatre’s production of Paul Morella’s A Christmas Carol adaptation has officially brought the holiday season down upon us. The pandemic takes the loss this time — it can’t rid us of the magic, charm and lessons we cherish from stingy old Ebenezer Scrooge. Nestle in front of your computer with your furry companion and some hot chocolate — mini marshmallows melting while your tree lights glow from afar — and take comfort that it’s not “an undigested bit of beef … or a fragment of underdone potato.”

This is just good theatre.

Riverside Theatre tips its top hat to 40 years with the Christmas classic, directed by Ron Clark. The iconic characters of Scrooge, Jacob Marley, Tiny Tim and the chronological spirits are all portrayed by the immensely talented John William Watkins. In fact, his tremendous voice animation nearly convinces the audience that there truly are many lives on stage. Yet, it is only he and Tara McGovern who grace our screens alongside a podium, music stand, and a fiddle.

The accomplished McGovern composed and arranged the score for the production, accompanying Watkins with an exquisite mixture of holiday tunes, soaring melodies, and timely scraping of the strings that help bring the ghosts (and their chilling messages) to life.

John William Watkins in Riverside Theatre’s production of ‘A Christmas Carol.’ — Adam Knight / Riverside Theatre

It takes some time to fall into rhythm with the story, as lines come quick and the stage lights only change every so often. This form of storytelling, this massive undertaking of A Christmas Carol, forces us to be uncomfortably present in both the world that we live in and also the world that Dickens created, listening intently to every syllable in order to fuel our imagination.

There are no heavy chains to be seen nor any friendly giant, and the horror of a future yet to come lies solely in the foreboding hand of Watkins. Perhaps, though, this is exactly what we need right now: a stripped-down version of a story about greed, ignorance and the power in simple acts of kindness.

The show gathers speed after the briefest of intermissions, with Watkins and McGovern dancing together in celebration of Christmas present. This sets up the rest of the production to maximize more of the lonesome stage they find themselves on while the lights slowly become characters themselves, aiding in the growing suspense and horror that is Scrooge’s current trajectory.

John William Watkins and Tara McGovern in Riverside Theatre’s production of ‘A Christmas Carol.’ — Adam Knight / Riverside Theatre

One of the most memorable scenes that Watkins vividly paints for us is the emergence of the ghastly children “Ignorance” and “Want” from underneath the robe of the Ghost of Christmas Present. This image clings to the minds of the audience because of the stark difference between the jolly, bright spirit who rejoices in the holiday celebrations and the reality of both Scrooge’s present-self and the dark underbelly of society.

First believed to be a claw, the barely human children stumble out in front of Scrooge, creatures Present is forever cursed with. Although explicit symbols of doom for the protagonist, Ignorance and Want are unwelcome reminders for all those watching of what may still exist just outside the joys of twinkle lights and Santa Claus.

Riverside Theatre’s A Christmas Carol is available for streaming through Sunday, Dec. 13. Virtual admission is $10 for students and $15 for adults. Expect a warm welcome from producing artistic director Adam Knight, and then turn on the fireplace channel for a raw adaptation of an ever-present story on how our actions deeply affect others — and that it’s never too late to change.

Remember, “There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor.”

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