Arts & Culture

Review: Riverside Theatre's 'Christmas Carol' rings through the ages

Iowa City troupe's online adaptation of Dickens classic streaming through Dec. 13

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Even though Iowa City’s Riverside Theatre has staged a solo adaptation of “A Christmas Carol,” interactions between actor John William Watkins and fiddler Tara McGovern bring holiday sweetness and knowing glances to this virtual version, taped in the Grandon Studio at Theatre Cedar Rapids. The production will stream online through 11:59 p.m. Dec. 13. (Adam Knight)

It’s the best of times in the worst of times.

Riverside Theatre’s online production of “A Christmas Carol” is sublime. And even though pandemic protocols mean that audiences can’t sit at the feet of actor John William Watkins and fiddler Tara McGovern to absorb all that they have to give us, the spirit of this Christmas Present has captured perfectly every nuance of their storytelling.

This virtual version, which Producing Artistic Director Adam Knight calls the capstone of Riverside’s fall season, is streaming through 11:59 p.m. Dec. 13. Do not miss it.

Riverside was the first company playwright Paul Morella granted permission to produce his adaptation six years ago, and he agreed to let the Iowa City troupe restage it this year.

It’s my new favorite telling of this ageless tale of redemption emerging out of the darkness — but you only have a short time to revel in its glory. Like in live theater of Christmases Past, once the final curtain falls, the lights go out and the stage falls silent.

It’s a brilliant solo show that’s actually a lovely duet between actor and musician, with McGovern adding new compositions and her own arrangement of familiar Christmas carols — as well as sound effects and exclamation points to Charles Dickens’ vibrant text.

Morella uses Dickens’ original words, which in the skilled hands of Watkins and director Ron Clark, paint passionate portraits of a brooding, haunted soul shrinking from his spirited surroundings, where even the poorest families greet the holidays with giddy anticipation.

Watkins is more animated than Mr. Magoo and Scrooge McDuck combined, and infinitely superior. He plays all the roles, including a narrator, taken straight from Dickens’ 1843 novella, which actually was meant to be read aloud before playwrights and screenwriters turned it into a full-blown extravaganza for stage and film.

All the specters are there, from Marley’s Ghost to the three visitors that eventually scare the humbug out of Ebenezer Scrooge, but in Watkins’ dynamic portrayals, they won’t scare young viewers. So gather all ages around your home screens and get ready to make merry with the Cratchits. You may even want to dance a jig during the jolly ballroom scene at Fezziwig’s warehouse, when a young Ebenezer embraced the holiday and all its trappings, before his heart turned cold.

The language is the special beauty of this production. Dickens has created imagery more vivid than any team of scenic, lighting, costume and makeup designers can replicate. In this case, however, production designer Chris Rich has given the players just what they need — a sturdy stand for Watkins’ manuscript, an elegant abstract music stand borrowed from Iowa City wood artist Nancy Romalov, and lighting that accents moods from stark to ethereal to celebratory.

Watkins brings perfection to every character, slipping instantly and effortlessly between distinct postures, gestures, genders, ages, tones, accents and inflections. Of course, that takes great physical and emotional artistry, guided by Clark’s insightful direction. McGovern flings the sparkle primarily through her instrument, but also through knowing glances shared with Watkins.

Even though they’re contemporary storytellers leafing through the pages of the past, Watkins’ tux shirt, vest and subtly striped pants lend a timeless quality to the overall picture.

A special nod goes to Rob Merritt for his videography, capturing the action from various angles and points of view inside Theatre Cedar Rapids’ intimate Grandon Studio. The bare-bones setting serves the production well, since built scenery would only get in the way. It’s just not needed when you have such fine performers plying their craft.

Let’s hope Riverside Theatre will consider staging this magical adaptation in Christmases Yet to Come.

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If you go

• What: “A Christmas Carol,” solo adaptation by Paul Morella

• Where: Online; link sent via email after ticket purchase

• When: Streaming through 11:59 p.m. Dec. 13

• Tickets: $15 adults, $10 students,

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