For the second year in a row, Portland Center Stage presents Mead Hunter's adaptation of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. I missed last year's premiere, so the show's bells, whistles, songs, moans, and microphone crackles were all new to me. (You're going to fix those sound problems, right guys?)
A Christmas Carol is a chestnut, to be sure, but one that's capable of evoking a real response, as ghosts guide Ebenezer Scrooge through the disappointments and cruelties that make up his past, present, and future. This production, though, hits the cheer a little too hard, taking a tone that's so lighthearted and silly it fails to invite any real emotional investment—as though saying, in effect, "We've all seen this show a hundred times before, so how could anyone take it seriously at this point?"
Lavish costumes and a lush, versatile set make this show the prettiest piece of holiday eye candy you'll see all season. Given the emphasis on surfaces, it's unsurprising that each Christmas ghost comes with a goofy gimmick: a death-metal Jacob Marley (Ted Roisum) arrives in a cloud of fog, with chains flying behind him; the ghost of Christmas Past appears in triplicate; Christmas Present (Juliana Jaffe) descends from the sky like she's headlining a drag show; Christmas Future is a towering, teetering puppet.
Out-of-towner Wesley Mann is back for a second year in the role of Ebenezer Scrooge, and spends most of the play doing his best Droopy Dog impression. Mann's loose-limbed, galumphing physical presence doesn't match the haughty, nasal tone with which he endows his character—Mann's casting, in fact, doesn't make sense at all until Scrooge at last casts off his doldrums and is allowed to careen joyously around the stage. As with this production as a whole, the best elements of Mann's performance are the cheery ones: His joy is palpable in a way his misery never was.
The temptation to bring something fresh and fun to this story is understandable. Unfortunately, though, the show just has to be a bummer for a while, in order for Dickens' redemptive ending to be affecting. Here, everyone's in on the joke, and the characters are just biding their time, waiting for the punchline—when at last Tiny Tim bleats out "God bless us, everyone!" and fake snow douses a cast that's finally united in cheer.