Patrick Stewart, who as Capt. Jean-Luc Picard sternly steers the current crop of "Star Trek"-kers traveling in weekly TV syndication, is spending 10 of his holidays in a somewhat spectacular solo flight, going where no one-man show has gone. He's flown directly into the joyful heart of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol."
And a soaring success it is!
The Stewart stunt, which officially began its limited Broadway run last night at the Eugene O'Neill, is acutely in tune with the times. A more Dickensian Christmas, in the penny-pinching sense of the word, would be hard to imagine! But, as it happily turns out, a generous and majestic actor playing all of the parts is all that's really required for a full, uplifting evening.
Certainly, Stewart fits that bill in spades, displaying emotional galaxies far beyond his present TV gig as well as his best-known past one (the scheming Sejanus of "I, Claudius"). The RSC training is much in evidence - he was last on Broadway as Snout in Peter Brook's landmark "A Midsummer Night's Dream" 21 years ago - and so, too, is a native intelligence that enables him to move smoothly through the congested narrative maze of this abiding classic.
The actor did the adapting honors himself, tailoring the novel to his needs (without really making it easy on himself, either). As one might imagine, Ebenezer Scrooge is a perfect fit for him, and he gives the role a bravado rendering, carrying the mean-spirited old skinflint through a ghostly Christmas Eve to redemption.
Like the TV Scrooge of George C. Scott, Stewart mines some unexpected humor in the role. When the character reaches his born-again morning-after, Stewart clears his throat of cobwebs to break into an out-of-practice laugh or to lift his voice in Christmas hymn at church.
Where this "Christmas Carol" has a decided edge over the musicalized and colorized ones that populate the small-screen every year about this time is the huge hunk of Dickens it serves to the audience. The one-man-show format allows the actor to take off on literary tangents at will, opening up whole new sections of the story previously considered cinematically untranslatable.
The Cratchits' Christmas goose comes with a succulent verbal garnishing, for example, and the holiday office party which Fezziwig springs on the young-clerk Scrooge is accompanied by a spirited folk dance around the stage.
Stewart works against a black backdrop, punctuated with five sticks of furniture - chair, table, stool, desk and lectern - rearranged and utilized unobtrusively. The closest he comes to a costar is a lighting man named Fred Allen, who adroitly underscores the various shifts in mood and narration.
At the outset and again at the curtain call, Stewart hits the stage hoisting high in the air a copy of "A Christmas Carol," and this is what he serves - like a banquet.
To be brutally honest, my initial reaction to the idea of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" as one-man, bare-stage recitation was something on the lines of "Bah, humbug!"
Yet now to be scrupulously fair, Patrick Stewart - with his stunningly effective and deviously imaginative portrayal of Scrooge and Company in his multi-voiced, many-faceted "A Christmas Carol," which opened at the Eugene O'Neill Theater last night - won over every single one of my doubts and gift-wrapped them up as a Christmas bouquet.
This was unexpectedly beautiful and thrilling. Imagine a combination of that master recitalist, the late Emlyn Williams as Charles Dickens, with the Royal Shakespeare Company (the troupe with which Stewart was so long an ornament) in "Nicholas Nickleby" and you have fairly shrewd idea of this presentation.
Dickens, of course, was one of nature's dramatists, and it is a strange reflection on the state of the Victorian theater that throughout his long career he never wrote a play. Yet it is obvious that in all of his novels there was a playwright (or at least a screenwriter) bursting to get out.
No one has set scenes or portrayed characters with more felicity than Dickens - with his carefully visualized descriptions and his acutely observed dialogue, images of people and places leap from his pages, while his command of drama is matchless.
This is the Dickens that Stewart, all lean intensity and fierce vibrancy, has caught in action on his all but naked stage. So many stage adaptations of "A Christmas Carol" - and there are so many - concentrate on the miserly character of Scrooge and such Christmas card sentiments as good will to all men.
Stewart knows that there is more to Dickens than this - and not merely the macabre (which he does with exquisite shivers) or the jolly, although he again proves himself a wonderfully bizarre comic actor. But he equally stresses the underside of Victorian life, the poor, the hungry, the dispossessed, all of whom are never far from Dickens' thoughts.
The versatility and physicality of Stewart as an actor works tiny miracles here - listen to his inspired acting out of the party at the Fezziwigs in Scrooge's youth, with all the variously absurd voices, ending up with his solo performance of a vigorous Roger de Coverley round dance by a whole ballroom of people.
The Spanish playwright Calderon once defined the requisites for drama as a plank and a passion, and this proposition is given a joyous workout by the collaborators Stewart and his silent partner, Dickens.
Now let me make an odd confession. Obviously many of the people currently crowding the O'Neill Theater are going to see Stewart because he plays the apparently valiant Captain Jean-Luc Picard in "Star Trek: The Next Generation."
Not me. How selectively out of it can one get? No Trekkie I. Until the other day I didn't even know he had a TV series. I have been watching his work in Britain for 25 years or so, although the last time I saw him was admittedly in 1986 at Britain's National Theater, when he very successfully took over Alan Bates' role in Peter Shaffer's biblical "Yonadab."
So, for about five years I have idly wondered whatever became of him. Now I know. He was rehearsing for "A Christmas Carol."
"A Christmas Carol" has been so musicalized and cinematized that it may be difficult to remember the beautiful simplicity of the original Dickens story, an ode to Christmas past, present and future and a moral fable of heartwarming intensity. Patrick Stewart's one-man dramatic version at the Eugene O'Neill Theater is restorative, revealing the work's full narrative splendor, its humor as well as its humanity.
Because of Mr. Stewart's virtuosity, the show could be considered a coda to the Royal Shakespeare Company's "Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby." The actor offers his solo equivalent of that expansive ensemble act of the imagination, making an audience believe it has entered a magical world dense with character, atmosphere and action.
For those who think of Mr. Stewart principally as Jean-Luc Picard on television's "Star Trek: The Next Generation," it must be said that before he captained the starship Enterprise he was a stellar member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. He was brilliant in roles as varied as Enobarbus in Peter Brook's production of "Antony and Cleopatra" and Shylock at Stratford-on-Avon.
His supple look and voice enable him to portray the widest range of Dickens characters without altering his costume or makeup. Classically trained, he has the verbal dexterity of Ian McKellen. All this is combined with his own delectation in performance. In this show, that performance is both Dickensian and Shakespearean, savoring each role as well as the lush descriptive language and, whenever possible, re-creating dramatic encounters.
The large stage is bare except for several pieces of utilitarian furniture. Informally dressed, Mr. Stewart makes a casual entrance and holds a book -- presumably the text of his performance -- over his head like a beacon. Then he runs with "A Christmas Carol," in his own careful two-hour distillation of the story. Although the reading would be even more congenial in a smaller theater, he easily fills a Broadway stage.
All of the essentials are in place, with the accent on the juxtaposition of despair and joyfulness. At the center, of course, is that "squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner," Ebenezer Scrooge. Mr. Stewart allows for no softening around the edges, in either the character or the story, yet he does not make Scrooge into a caricatured villain.
From his initial appearance in the frigid offices of Scrooge & Marley, there is a feeling that his self-containment is also an evasion, that he has buried a side of his personality. Acting as narrator, Mr. Stewart says, "Darkness is cheap -- and Scrooge liked it," and he shows us how the man's emotional life was as dim as the embers in his hearth.
As Scrooge is returned to his past and then recalled to life, Mr. Stewart plays all the roles (including a merry crowd of dancing Fezziwigs) as well as imitating sounds like chiming clocks and bells. He mimes the props and the scenic effects, simulating the wind on the streets and the echoes in Scrooge's solitary chamber. As called for, he is cheerful, sepulchral, childlike and feminine, as well as stouthearted when it comes to Bob Cratchit.
The Cratchit Christmas dinner, in which the actor portrays the entire family, Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present, and is also on the verge of impersonating the goose on the table and the Christmas pudding with holly stuck into the top, is a tour de force. It reminds us not only of what an inventive actor he is, but also of Dickens's own great theatricality.
Seeing the actor in this show is the closest we can come to Dickens in his public performances, in which he also dominated a bare stage with his talent and his zest for his subject. At the end of Mr. Stewart's eloquent "Christmas Carol," one wishes he would move on to "The Cricket on the Hearth" and other Dickensian treasures.