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Review: ‘A Christmas Carol’ in Woodstock enriched by fresh retelling

The Spirit of Christmas Present (Derrick Wilson) visits Elizabeth Scrooge (Nicole Lapas) in a new retelling of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." It's a Theatre 121 production in Woodstock

Area actor and playwright Jeff Cook admitted he was afraid the audience and theater acting community would not accept a female Scrooge, certainly a different kind of Scrooge, if he adapted Charles Dickens’ beloved “A Christmas Carol.” But Cook wrote a version “fixing many of the issues” he had observed in past productions.

Cook eliminated long sections, changed the order of the spirits’ arrival, and even added jokes. He found challenges in balancing his desire to ground his adaptation “in the comforting, familiar and traditional world of Dickens, while being able to explore stories that lie between the pages” of the Dickens novella. Cook also stresses Dickens’ version was about greed, and his version is about pain, how you deal with it, and what happens if you don’t.

Set in an 1840s London (with moveable box units designed by Jason Clark), Cook’s adaptation premiered Nov. 18, produced by Theatre 121 at the Woodstock Opera House. He also directed the play, collaborating with the show’s Children’s Choir Director Kenzie Conrad. There are about 30 people in the ensemble – quite an ambitious undertaking – 12 are children, many who have never done a show before. Cook readily admits this is the first show he’s ever directed with children, and, of course, they are adorably engaging, with Emelina Kelm’s Tiny Tim played with characteristic pure innocence.

Cook’s version of “A Christmas Carol” is more relevant and poignant to modern audiences. Interestingly, he also has focused on the development of characters usually pushed to the sidelines, such as Mrs. Cratchit and Jacob Marley.

A new retelling of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" focuses on Elizabeth Scrooge (Nicole Lapas). It's a Theatre 121 production in Woodstock

Nicole Lapas is Elizabeth Scrooge; she states as an actress she was drawn to the character because of her own experiences and perspective, and the unique attraction of a new character in an iconic role. Lapas humanizes the journey of Scrooge, and she is absolutely brilliant. She is steadfast in her portrayals of stubbornness, haughty demeanor, coldness, the ultimate vulnerability and eventual transition into a compassionate human. Cook also has given her many opportunities to express what it was like to be a woman in that era, let alone a woman with her own financial business who is judged and scorned and has to work twice as hard while resisting jealousy and ignorance by society. Lapas portrays subtly and fervently all the truthful and bitter trials and tribulations of that situation.

In a new retelling of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," the Cratchit family gathers, led by their widowed mother. It's a Theatre 121 production in Woodstock

Amanda Lauteri as Alice Cratchit is also a wonderful talent. Her character works as a bookkeeper for Elizabeth Scrooge. Lauteri is the personification of who and what you’d want Mrs. Cratchit to be – and by the way, she’s a widow – sweet, humorous, a wonderfully calm presence at work and home. Lauteri like Lapas is fully dimensional.

There are many strong notables in this ensemble. Matt Stewart’s Fred is suave, kind and charming – one of the best I’ve seen in recent times. Really hitting home is his delivery of “I’m still hoping for an aunt whose goodness is there, a buried treasure.”

Lynn Cotner radiates confidence and charm whether she’s Alice’s mother or the spot-on accented Mrs. Dilber. Paul Lockwood’s chained Marley finally has found a lengthier explanation of why he’s come back (“you are in so much trouble”) and an exquisitely scary moan, both of which Lockwood executes particularly well.

Marley is portrayed by Paul Lockwood in a new retelling of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." It's a Theatre 121 in Woodstock production.

And then there are, of course, the three spirits. Wisely, Cook has the Spirit of Christmas Present appear first. Portrayed expertly, joyfully and tongue-in-cheek by Derrick Wilson, his spirit is a visual treat and so welcomed from the moment he proclaims, “I’m here to broaden your horizons.” Making their appearances in Act Two are Marissa Snook’s Spirit of Christmas Past and Kylee Jones’ Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come. Snook is an effervescent, bubbly and jubilant spirit resplendent in a gown and crown displaying lights “through which we see our memories.” Jones is funerary shrouded – a tall, silent, frightening portrayal done well.

A nod to Erin Liston’s Fan, Elijah Freundl’s William, and Maggie Liston’s adult-in-the-past Scrooge. Freundl and Liston’s breakup scene is nuanced, intense and painful. These three’s compelling talents lend much credibility to the unfolding story of Cook’s vision.

Christine Nicholson’s specialty-built costumes are a colorfully appropriate treat in Shannon Lee Day’s costume design. And kudos to a very energetic stage crew under Tracey Lanman’s technical direction that kept those box units moving at a fast pace. Joel Bennett’s savvy sound design is pleasing and unobtrusive.

Stephen Sondheim once said, “What keeps theater alive is the chance always to do it differently with not only fresh casts, but fresh viewpoints.” Cook’s “A Christmas Carol” fits that bill.

• Regina Belt-Daniels has been involved with the theater since the first grade, either on stage or backstage acting, directing, producing, stage managing or writing reviews.

IF YOU GO

WHAT: “A Christmas Carol” by Theatre 121

WHERE: Woodstock Opera House, 121 Van Buren St., Woodstock

WHEN: Through Dec. 4

INFORMATION: 815-338-5300, www.woodstockoperahouse.com/operahouse