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Trim the Trimmings

A Christmas Carol dazzles and confounds in equal measure

In October 1843, needing money, Charles Dickens remembered a little tale he had told in a weekly periodical about a grumpy old miser visited by Christmas ghosts. He reworked this story, and six weeks later his "ghostly little book" was published. A Christmas Carol was a sensational success, and it helped create our holiday traditions of charity, hearty celebration and goodwill toward men.

Dickens's immortal story of Ebenezer Scrooge and his ghostly visitations has survived odd, intemperate stagings -- witness Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol. Even though the Alley's production would have been better off done straight, it still has enough of the flavor of Dickens to make a visit worthwhile. It dazzles and confounds in equal measure.

Adapted and directed by Michael Wilson for the company in 1990, A Christmas Carol is pretty faithful to Dickens's dialogue. He would appreciate the literate script, especially since sprinkled abundantly throughout are his Victorian pearls. "There's more of gravy than the grave about you," a dismissive Scrooge says to Marley's ghost, taking the horrible specter for a bout of indigestion. Indigestion may be the only excuse for the six extraneous interpretive dancing ghosts who periodically pop up to torment the old miser. Dickens isn't the only one scratching his head.

Extraneous: A Christmas Carol's dancing ghosts.
T. Charles Erickson
Extraneous: A Christmas Carol's dancing ghosts.

Details

A Christmas Carol

Through December 27. $42-$57.

Christmas Is Comin' Uptown

Through December 31. $18-$35.

A Christmas Carol

Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-228-8421

Christmas Is Comin' Uptown

Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main, 713-520-0055

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The period flavor is richly captured in the Sweeney Todd-like sets of factory brickwork and iron crosswalks rendered by Tony Straiges, and in the Victorian waistcoats, poplins and woolen mufflers by Alejo Vietti. Christmas Past (Elizabeth Heflin) appears in a wonderland sleigh looking like an errant Mrs. Claus, all bright and glittery. Radiating heartfelt goodness and beneficence, she seems made of snowflakes.

The Ghost of Christmas Present (James Belcher) slides majestically from upstage upon a cornucopia of hearty laughter. Wearing a fur-trimmed brocaded robe and a lighted holly wreath upon his brow, he most matches Dickens's description, as well as John Leech's 1843 illustration.

The terrifying and noxious Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come (listed as "Himself," as this role has always been credited) is just a mistake. He doesn't materialize in death's black-hooded garb, as we expect, but pedaling a Victorian circus contraption wearing what looks like some discarded bat costume from the operetta Fledermaus. This musical comedy ghost sucks the ghastly air right out of the story.

As Scrooge, David Rainey (spelled by James Black for half the run) is a blustery curmudgeon, but more often plays this "squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner" with a half wink to the audience as if to say he's not really like this at all. He's a sympathetic softie; i.e., no Scrooge.

Dickens with Attitude

If Dickens would appreciate the Alley's language and visual splendor, he'd be dancing in the aisles with Ensemble Theatre's snappy musical rendition Christmas Is Comin' Uptown. Although it didn't last long on Broadway, Garry Sherman, Peter Udell and Philip Rose's 1979 resetting of Victorian London to contemporary Harlem is thoroughly smart and sassy -- Dickens with attitude.

Mean old Scrooge (pizzazz-filled Gary Vincent), a slumlord on Manhattan's 125th Street, is out for all the bucks he can get. "Expendable green," he sings lasciviously, taking loose change from children and robbing the charity bucket. But Marley's ghost (Clarence Whitmore), weighed down by his chains, issues a dire warning: learn to "boogie right and get a new routine," or end up like him, a one-man chain gang.

All the familiar Dickens touches are here, zipped up in brassy street talk, bubbly music and brassier performances from the multitalented cast. All the ghosts arrive with suitable backup trio, adding impudence and gusto to the musical numbers, each one vibrantly choreographed by Patdro Harris.

Christmas Past (Andrew Jackson) is a nimble, high-strung boxer with a big ego and bigger Afro, smacking Scrooge down with images from his past. Christmas Present (Aisha Ussery) is a feisty, impatient Rastafarian who won't brook back talk from someone who's never done a simple kind thing in his life. Christmas Future (Tommie Harper) is a sexy rapper in shades and black leather greatcoat, from which he pulls a monstrous switchblade to torment the unrepentant Scrooge. He raises the roof, but not Scrooge's falling spirits, in "One Way Ticket to Hell," his prediction of what's in store if Ebenezer doesn't change -- and fast.

Scrooge is, of course, transformed. You will be, too, thanks to this rip-roarin' production. -- D. L. Groover

 
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