In the Currier and Ives postcard that is Niagara-on-the-Lake in wintertime, there is one significant drawback: the dormancy of the Shaw Festival.
It seems a shame that up to this point wintertime visits to the town have offered little more than window-shopping for holiday trinkets, sipping local wines in front roaring fireplaces and eating haute cuisine behind picturesquely fogged windows.
That may sound fine to you, but for the theater-obsessed, it doesn't quite cut it.
But fear not, theater fans, for behold: Shaw Festival Artistic Director Tim Carroll brings you tidings of great joy. They come in the form of a low-key but ravishing production of "A Christmas Carol" running through Dec. 23 in the Royal George Theatre.
Commercial success is rarely indicative of quality, but in this case, the sold-out run of this production has earned every shilling of its hefty box-office haul. The good news is that Carroll and company are bringing it back next season so more people can delight in its inventiveness and good cheer. (Tickets for the 2018 production go on sale Dec. 8.)
Though he is barely through his first season at the festival, Carroll has succeeded in establishing a new aesthetic for the company. It's one that embraces playfulness, improvisation, humor and audience interaction, and that searches, as Carroll put it, to locate "the fixed in the flowing and the flowing in the fixed." That aesthetic is on full display this, which imbues Charles Dickens' endlessly repeatable morality tale with new life.
Carroll's cast starts off the production with a Christmas carol singalong, complete with supertitles projected on Christine Lohre's charming backdrop depicting a snow-covered Niagara-on-the-Lake as an advent calendar. Sufficiently shocked into the Christmas spirit, we then watch as a wily, bearded Scrooge (Michael Terriault) slithers along the aisle muttering like a disenchanted troll about the vagaries of the holiday season.
And then we're off, right in the thick of Dickens' language, which Therriault -- star of the Shaw's sterling production of "Me and My Girl" -- files down to some very sharp edges. When he says that poor people had better die and thus "decrease the surplus population," it has never sounded more genuine.
But while Terriault's finely honed humbuggery is delightful, the greatest pleasure of the production comes from its use of puppetry and other bits of stagecraft to create a world the audience feels deeply a part of. These wonderful tricks range from characters who bring fistfuls of fake snow out of their pockets and throw it up in the air to simulate actual flurries to truly dread-inspiring, larger-than-life puppets of Jacob Marley and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.
The puppets, themselves worth the price of a ticket (if only one were available), are the work of Alexis Milligan, whose work on "The Madness of George III" and "Androcles and the Lion" stood out this season. Her achievements with the outsized puppets in this production, which are operated by teams of barely visible cast members, are stunning. It's best not to give anything away.
Fine performances come from Andrew Lawrie as an unusually comic Bob Cratchit, Graeme Somerville as the leader of the carolers and especially Jeff Meadows as the ghost of Christmas present. Meadows, who plays his character as a sort of phantasmic Forrest Gump, emerges on roller skates in Scrooge's bedchamber before turning into a puppet gazing down at the lives of the Cratchits and Scrooge's nephew Fred (Jonathan Tan).
There are delights and surprises around every turn in this production, but incredibly they never detract from the power of Dickens' deathless language, which has all of its intended effects. On the off-chance you weren't in the holiday spirit when you walked into the theater, you won't be able to help it on the way out.
4 stars (out of 4)
"A Christmas Carol" runs through Dec. 23 in the Royal George Theatre, 85 Queen St., Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. The run is sold out, but tickets for the 2018 production go on sale Dec. 8. Call (800) 511-7429 or visit shawfest.com.