"Gadoing!" says Patrick Stewart in his very grown-up, totally compelling interpretation of Charles Dickens's "Christmas Carol," at the Richard Rodgers Theater. He pauses importantly before saying it again. And again: "Gadoing!"
The word, which can be found in no dictionary, is Mr. Stewart's onomatopoeic rendering of the striking of a clock. It makes a silly sound that causes children to giggle appreciatively. But it has a far more significant purpose.
Throughout this supremely entertaining, supremely intelligent one-man dramatization of Dickens's best-known tale, we are never far from sounds and images of time passing -- of ticking clocks, clanging bells and light waning into darkness -- and of an awareness of the ways it is spent and misspent.
Mr. Stewart, who brings his "Carol" to Broadway for the third time in four years, gives full weight to the story's familiar, pious credo: "God bless us, every one!" But he also illuminates an unstated message that has far older roots: "Seize the day!" In so doing, he restores the novelistic richness to a work that has repeatedly been distilled into sugary simplicity over the 150-some years since it was written.
"A Christmas Carol" has long been the literary fruitcake of the yuletide season: something that is mechanically brought out once a year but that many people regard as indigestibly leaden and sweet. It has been the occasion for musical spectacles (two of which can currently be seen in New York at the Paramount and Radio City Music Hall), as well as television and movie star turns for performers as diverse as Bill Murray, Alastair Sim, Mr. Magoo and the Muppets.
Most of these interpretations have capitalized on the sentimental core of the fable, in which a crabby miser is thawed into humanistic warmth by the visitation of the spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Future. Mr. Stewart doesn't ignore Dickens the sentimentalist. How could he? But he also finds the voice of Dickens the sensualist, the melancholy brooder and the fierce social reformer, reminding us anew of why the author was the greatest of Victorian novelists. There is incandescent anger and epicurean joy here, as well as cozy Christmas cheer, and every word seems freshly minted.
How Mr. Stewart achieves this will bring envious shivers to any student of acting. There is, of course, the voice, as ripely magisterial as those of Orson Welles and James Earl Jones, and well known to fans of both his roles with the Royal Shakespeare Company and his television incarnation as the forbidding Captain Picard on "Star Trek: The Next Generation."
He uses that voice with gleeful agility to impersonate the entire population of the story, from the muffled foghorn of Marley's ghost to the flutelike tenor of Christmas Past. Of course, other actors, from Ian McKellen to Sherry Glaser, can do this sort of thing as well as Mr. Stewart. His signal accomplishment here is to breathe ineffably theatrical life into Dickens's narrative and descriptive prose.
His pauses are as meaningful as his speech. He lets the words breathe and reverberate, so that Dickens's singular images, like the description of Marley's phantom face, glowing like "a bad lobster in a dark cellar," get as many laughs as Mr. Stewart's robust physical antics. There is no set per se for this "Christmas Carol," only five pieces of furniture that Mr. Stewart moves about effortlessly on an empty black stage. And yet you leave the theater feeling stuffed from a visual feast.
Scrooge the cartoon curmudgeon is nowhere to be seen in this production. Mr. Stewart cannily underplays his Ebenezer, forgoing the usual splenetic fireworks. ("Bah! Humbug!" is delivered with straight-faced solemnity.) As a consequence, he is a disturbingly chilly Scrooge, a man indeed as "solitary as an oyster," who has cut himself off from the vital flow of life by measuring his days in pounds and pence.
Indeed, Mr. Stewart's Scrooge seems to exist in time in a different way from the other characters. His careful movements and speech, which suggest a man on the verge of freezing into paralysis, are contrasted with the pulsing kinetic energy of the Cratchits and the Fezziwigs as they prepare for the holidays. And when Scrooge finally erupts into laughter toward the end of the evening, it is with the physically labored contortions of someone breaking out of bondage.
It is also worth noting that the annoyingly noble Tiny Tim, who along with Little Nell has long been held up as an argument for hating Dickens, is actually made sympathetic here. Mr. Stewart has ingeniously given the character a little ballad, sung in a frail, moribund voice, that brings home the reality of a mortally ill child. Similarly, when the Ghost of Christmas Present rebukes the miser for refusing to give to charities, it is with a blaze of indignation guaranteed to provoke guilty consciences in the audience.
Mr. Stewart frames the story's supernatural elements with a tone of authorial skepticism that gives way to an awed acceptance mirrored by those watching him. In this he has been wonderfully abetted by Fred Allen, whose lighting separates the quotidian from the spirit realm with otherworldy precision.
Ultimately, though, it is Dickens's language, and Mr. Stewart's ability to make it palpable, that makes the evening shimmer. It is absolutely right that the actor shares his curtain calls with the author, holding up a red-covered copy of the text for applause. This "Christmas Carol" is more than a one-man tour de force. It is single-handedly raising the literacy standard on Broadway.
While spectacle describes the new musical version of "A Christmas Carol" at Madison Square Garden's Paramount Theater, Patrick Stewart's solo rendering of the Dickens story is anti-spectacle. With no more than a few pieces of furniture, a marvelously effective lighting scheme by Fred Allen and, primarily, a body that truly is an instrument, Stewart tells the tale in a way that dares you not to become totally, wholly engrossed.
A formidable vocal and histrionic skill is the most obvious reason for this; a subtler one is Stewart's transparent joy in taking on all the familiar roles with a perfect mix of earnestness and play. He negotiates a tightrope -- on one side, sentimentality, on the other, self-importance -- with irresistible confidence.
So Stewart seems to have an annuity here, this being the third time he's played the show on Broadway during the Christmas season; last year he did it at the Old Vic in London and won an Olivier Award for his efforts. An emergency necessitated my early departure on opening night, but judging from the first act , it appears only to have gotten richer.
Of course, since he began performing it, the major change to have transpired is that the actor has become a bigger star and even a sex symbol, accounting for the crowds outside the stage entrance to the Richard Rodgers. Too bad the show is going for $ 50 a pop: Think of the world of good it would do for all those Trekkies to get beamed up to the truly amazing world Dickens conjured 150 years ago, in this inspired rendition.