It’s hard to imagine a holiday season that doesn’t include enjoying some iteration of Charles Dickens’s holiday classic A Christmas Carol. Now, for the third year, Summoners Ensemble Theatre in association with the Merchant’s House Museum in New York City is giving an historical way to enjoy the beloved tale of Ebenezer Scrooge’s fabled transformation.
Dickens first traveled to the United States in 1842. He published his observations in a travelogue entitled American Notes for General Circulation, which features critiques of society in the United States. In addition to highlighting what he admires in American culture, he also points out the flaws in international copyright law and the evils of slavery. He even indicts the free states for being complicit in the continuation and propagation of slavery in the United States. These very topics were also talking points for the lectures he gave on his trip, which both earned him supporters and ruffled feathers.
In the 1850s he began to plan a return trip to the United States. The outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 delayed his plans, but he successfully earned approximately £19,000 across the 76 readings he performed between December 1867 and April 1868. 22 of these readings were done at Steinway Hall (which was then located on 14th Street between University Place and Fifth Avenue)—a mere 10 blocks north of the Tredwell Family’s dwelling on Fourth Street (now known as the Merchant’s House Museum).
Now, no one is certain if the Tredwell’s attended a reading of A Christmas Carol at Steinway Hall, or if Dickens was a guest of the Tredwell’s, or even both. However, their timelines in the city do cross, so with a touch of speculation and a ton of holiday-inspired whimsy John Kevin Jones (actor, co-adapter) and Dr. Rhonda Dodd (director, co-adapter) invite audiences to sit in the Tredwell’s pristinely preserved parlor and listen to Jones share the story of A Christmas Carol as if we’re watching Dickens himself tell the tale to the Tredwell’s and their friends.
In the quaint yet ornate setting, Jones easily captivates the audience with his brightly hued voice. Portraying Dickens as narrator, his delight for sharing the story is tangible and intoxicating. As he recites the story, entirely from memory, he modulates his vocal pitch and the way he holds his body to breathe life into each character, making them both audibly and visually distinctive. The end result is a truly spellbinding presentation of A Christmas Carol that makes the familiar tale feel fresh and new all over again.
Jones’ telling of the narrative is so richly evocative that the audience often forgets that they are simply listening to someone tell them a story. He conveys every emotion of the story with reverence for Dickens’ rich themes and the art of theater. For instance, as Scrooge, his voice cracks and shakes with terror when Marley appears carrying the chains he forged in life. Also, tears stream from his eyes when he as Scrooge is forced by the Ghost of Christmas Future to confront the death of Tiny Tim. Likewise, his face and body beam with ebullient cheer when the Ghost of Christmas Past shows him visions of Fezziwig’s Christmas party and when he realizes that he has not missed Christmas and still has time to make his life right.
Seated in the intimate parlor at Merchant’s House Museum, this iteration of A Christmas Carol is a newly minted New York tradition that will truly stick with audiences. Unfortunately, like Hamilton’s run at The Public Theater, the 2015 run of A Christmas Carol will separate the theatrical haves from the have-nots as this run is completely sold out. However, Jones promises that Summoners Ensemble Theatre and the Merchant’s House Museum will have him back next year.
Performances continue through December 24, Christmas Eve. For more details visit MerchantHouse.org