The Alley Theatre's production of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol makes for the best sort of holiday tradition. It's short -- clocking in at just under two hours with an intermission. It's tender -- even old Ebenezer can't humbug at the Alley's cherubic Tiny Tim (played on alternate nights by Sydnee Harlan and Lucas Postolos). And it's often laugh-out-loud funny -- James Belcher's sour Scrooge can send both adults and children into hoots of laughter just by mentioning his dirty underdrawers.
Adapted and directed by Stephen Rayne, this production has run at the Alley for several holiday seasons. But somehow it hasn't gotten old. If anything, the show just gets better with age.
Part of the production's durability is its technical magic. Lighting designer Rui Rita has created a gorgeous dreamlike effect here, filling the stage with Victorian darkness that is punctuated with lovely puddles of amber glow out of which images appear and disappear like the ghostly apparitions they're meant to be. Douglas W. Schmidt's set features an entire city street scene that slips in and out from the wings, and Scrooge's dank, old bedroom has a wonderful surreal feel to it, with oversize furniture set at strange, nightmarish angles.
The set comes to life with the help of the Alley's charming cast. Belcher grows more wonderfully curmudgeonly with every passing year. His old Scrooge hunches over his writing desk, twitching his eyebrows and licking his wicked lips as he sneers at everyone foolish enough to "keep Christmas." His transformation from miser to benefactor is all the more moving because he starts out as such a tyrannical character. Bettye Fitzpatrick's Mrs. Dilber, Scrooge's dirty-faced charwoman, is full of greedy good cheer, even when she's stealing the old geezer's bed curtains. Sarah Prikryl's Ghost of Christmas Past is especially memorable. She moves like a human-sized version of the mechanical doll Scrooge receives as a gift from his nephew, and still she breaks our hearts with all the tender memories about Scrooge's sad past. And Todd Waite as Fred, Scrooge's endlessly good-natured nephew, manages to make Christmas cheer seem like something more than a marketing ploy.
In 1843, Dickens wrote his Christmas confection quickly, wanting to bring attention to the plight of poor children laboring in the factories of Victorian England. His story was such a hit that historians credit him with having profoundly influenced the way we celebrate Christmas today. It's a sad irony that his original message, urging us all to be aware of the less fortunate, is often forgotten by the raging throngs at the mall. But that message is alive and well at the Alley Theatre, where Scrooge can teach us all a thing or two about the goodness of generosity, even while we laugh at his underwear.
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