Oh, Carol!

Dancing from the spirit world. Rapping from uptown. Stripteasing from the wrong side of the tracks. Something from the avant-garde, perhaps? Nope. A performance piece? Hardly. It's A Christmas Carol, of all things. This past week I checked out three versions of Charles Dickens' holiday classic -- a ghost story of a show, a feel-good inner-city frolic and a campy spoof -- and though you might think there's a little too much nip in my eggnog, I found all three, for immensely different reasons, to be immensely satisfying.

The Alley's offering of A Christmas Carol is, as well it should be, the standard-bearer. With its talent and resources, Houston's leading professional theater is almost obligated to create a seasonal favorite so resplendent and fine that it becomes an annual family tradition. By emphasizing the creepy, the humorous and the symbolic in Scrooge's tale, adapter/director Michael Wilson thrillingly succeeds. At once remote and immediate, artificial and sincere, his interpretation has so many special effects and supernatural wonders that it works from the outside in ... and yet also from the inside out.

The script homes in on the touchstones. Miser Scrooge refuses Bob Cratchit even a lump of coal, admonishing his clerk that the candle he's been provided to work by ought to warm him sufficiently. When informed by specter Marley that he will be haunted by three spirits, Scrooge, ever the economical thinker, petitions, "Can't I have them all at once -- and get it over with?" And since sufficient time is devoted not only to Scrooge but to those around him, and since the spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Future are earlier seen as people "indebted" to Scrooge, the cheapskate isn't the only one to grow wonderfully generous and become genuinely poignant. Dickens' themes, as put into play by Wilson, are simple enough for children to understand and profound enough for adults to appreciate.

A whirling dervish of fluorescent ghosts trip the light fantastic on scenic designer Jay Michael Jagim's haunting, open-air set of dark staircases and planked passageways, precursors of eeriness to come. Apparitions descend from the ceiling, burst from the wardrobe, emerge from behind the fireplace. The spirit of Christmas Future is a gigantic, ominous, awe-inspiring mechanical robot that gives off a smoky reflection, has a clock for a stomach and "speaks" via a steam whistle. Scrooge's probable gravestone, climactically revealed behind a framed portrait of Marley, is a crumbling announcement of a life poorly lived. And as the dry ice evaporates and everything becomes contemplative and hushed, Scrooge grows sorrowful, then grievous, then humane, then jubilant. After all the spookiness, it's stunning how kindhearted the show ultimately becomes, ending as gently as the theatrical snow that falls from the ceiling.

From Ainslie Bruneau's trenchant costumes -- the spirit of Christmas Present is a Dionysian god; Marley's chains stretch clear across the stage -- to Joe Pino's piercing music cues -- thundering chords accompany thundering rain; echoes are as cavernous as Scrooge's heart -- to Howell Binkley's impressionistic lighting -- making the audience literally and figuratively blinded by the light -- the technicians spare no expense to stay true to Wilson's Dickensian vision.

Of the few things I didn't see eye-to-eye with Wilson about, the foremost is his use of actor Jeffrey Bean, who does double duty, in a cameo as Marley and in a more pronounced turn as Scrooge's housekeeper, Mrs. Dilber. Though he's quite funny in a Monty Pythonish way as a silly old biddy, and though it may be artistically viable to have one person play both characters, this gender bending still doesn't seem appropriate for a family show. Then again, the six children I randomly sounded out on this either had no idea what I was talking about or didn't care in the least. It also seems shameless to include an intermission -- which interrupts the arc of change that is the story's heart -- in a show that's maybe 90 minutes. And the final scene is more expedient than anything else: the arrivals to Scrooge's party begin taking curtain calls. But on the much larger positive side, the colorblind (at least in a black-and-white way) and gender-liberated casting is a precious gift for children of all ages.

The most precious gift of all, though, is James Black's Scrooge. With mouth agog and an impatient intelligence at the ready, he humbugs like a snapping turtle who has more bite than teeth. Shrewdly, Black plays him as so circumspectly smart that you can't help but wait for the magnanimity you know has been there all along, buried under heaps of penury. So you laugh at his cantankerousness and you sniffle at his burgeoning. Black has been playing this role for years; it shows in the best ways.

The cast is uniformly excellent. Most important, they're committed. Standouts include John Feltch's humble Bob Cratchit, Paul Hope's grand Fred (Scrooge's beneficent nephew), Bettye Fitzpatrick's wily spirit of Christmas Past and Charles Krohn's knowing spirit of Christmas Present. The many children performers are, of course, cute as the dickens.

"It's Tiny's time / To take that climb / To make that grand ascension. / Tiny's dead / For lack of bread / And medical attention."

So says Christmas Future in Sing a Christmas Song, a delightful excuse for a mini-musical that owes as much to rap as it does to Dickens. If brevity is the soul of wit, then this show -- "Now hold on tight / Don't lose your grip / I lost a dude on a previous trip" is ghostly advice given to Scrooge -- is right on target: it's barely an hour long.

Presented by The Ensemble Theatre in its world premiere, Sing a Christmas Song boasts music by Garry Sherman and lyrics and libretto by Peter Udell, the duo who created The Ensemble favorite Christmas Is Comin' Uptown. Less a revision than a retooling, Sing a Christmas Song strips A Christmas Carol to its core, sets it in contemporary African-American urban trappings and through nods to rhythm and blues, hip-hop, bebop, Motown and gospel -- as well as dialogue spoken solely in rap-like verse -- puts a happy hipster face on everything, though at times the rhythms are more Robert Service than Snoop Doggy Dogg.

This is a sweetheart of a show. How could it not be when, in "Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep," Scrooge sings, "If I die before I wake / Let Heaven be no welfare state"? If there's a rap on the rap that is Sing a Christmas Song, it's that the show is more of an extended sketch than a musical, a pleasant running gag that touches upon familiar sentiments. The creators are two of those responsible for Purlie, and they have significant credits on their own (Udell, for instance, wrote the lyrics to Shenandoah, while Sherman has so many gold records he could open up a jewelry shop). So you wish that they had tried harder, either by taking on more of Dickens' material or by creating their own African-American myth altogether.

In any case, the best number is Scrooge's anthem, "Somebody's Gotta Be the Heavy," done as a soft-shoe. "What Goes Around Comes Around" and "Have Finally Found My Heart" are, however, counterfeit; the former a generic Aretha Franklin-type song and the latter a generic pop ballad that do little more in melody or lyric than present the obvious. Mostly, however, the show rests on crowd-pleasing tactics, particularly in Sherman's music, which is tuneful while you're hearing it, but forgotten as soon as it's over. It's Udell's words that provide the more lasting pleasure, though his lyrics to the title song are a doozy, asking everyone to "come on, come on and sing along."

The show is worth seeing principally because of what The Ensemble does with the material. In a terrific joke, co-directors Eileen J. Morris and Alice M. Gatling turn Christmas Past and attendants into emblems of black-is-beautiful, complete with huge afros and tie-dyed frocks, while Christmas Present and associates, what with their berets and fatigues, owe a little something to Huey Newton. But Morris and Gatling's greatest accomplishment is how lively and wholesome they make the Harlem-situated musical: not for nothing is Scrooge clothed in Santa-red britches and "serenaded" by a trio of women ghosts, called Haints, whom you'd probably just as likely call the Supremes or the Ronettes. So spirited is the direction that you hardly notice that the music comes from synthesizers broadcast over a sound system, that the cast plays to the audience too often and that the last number is nothing but padding.

Still, given the cast's energy and talent, you almost wish that there was more padding. And the notes the women hit, especially Eve LaGale Willis Tates! She thrives in a number of roles, as do most of the actors. Clarence Whitmore's Scrooge is a comical jive turkey; it's high praise to say that he'd fit right in on Sesame Street. So would scenic designer Doug Gettle, who turns the Mid Town Art Center's tiny stage into a compact uptown city block, complete with a brownstone, a brick building and a basement apartment, all of which have secret compartments that suggest all sorts of inside places. What Sing a Christmas Song really is, is play time.

"It's all this Christmas malarkey," sighs Irish O'Flanagan, the caricature of a heroine of Times Square Angel. "It's giving me a case of the dismals."

What it gives us, courtesy of Jay Menchaca's bravura performance at The Actors Workshop, is a fabulous time. Since Charles Busch, he of Ridiculous Theater fame, wrote Times Square Angel, O'Flanagan -- a Depression era dame from Hell's kitchen determined to make it to the top of the seedy nightclub set -- is played by a man. And Menchaca, all gee-whiz enthusiasm and histrionic preening, all outturned elbows and clenched buns, is to die for. S/he puts on (no doubt cheap) perfume like s/he's playing Twister. S/he won't fall to the ground without pirouetting. S/he speaks in a cushion of a voice. Condescending yet insecure, dignified yet self-righteous, sometimes bitchy, frequently breathless, interminably gaudy but always flamboyant, Menchaca plays it totally "straight" from the heart. "I'm pretty, I'm a pretty girl," s/he says, and this is exactly right.

The connect-the-dots play is a kitschy send-up of 1940s Hollywood B movies. We cheer O'Flanagan on from the slums to the clubs to a selfishness that prompts the appearance of a cross between the ghost of Christmas Future and the angel from It's a Wonderful Life. There isn't a plot; there are plot summaries. This is a trifle, not merely because of the show's brevity (80 minutes, tops), but also because what you see is what you get: Irish O'Flanagan.

Other than a few playful touches vis-à-vis the gender of supporting roles, director Joey Berner doesn't create any atmosphere -- camp or otherwise. Nor does he, as set designer, create any set to speak of, even though there is one. And with the exception of Beverly Hutchison, who's so bizarre in such roles as Irish's rummy father, a garish society matron and a cheesy nightclub owner that she's straight out of Twin Peaks, the supporting cast is functional, at best.

But Busch's grande dame wit rears its beautiful/ugly head repeatedly, if sporadically. ("Funny, I've spent five years making zippers," Irish says about the old days. "Now I get paid for pulling them down." A typical putdown: "I can see by your posture how a washerwoman hump will develop.") And even when the writing lacks style or substance, Menchaca looks terrific delivering it, particularly when wearing a red dress and flouncing around in as many directions as the frills that cover the outfit. It's to our amusement that Menchaca and Irish O'Flanagan love to play dress-up.

A Christmas Carol plays through December 31 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue, 228-8421.

Sing a Christmas Song plays through December 31 at Mid Town Art Center, 3414 La Branch, 520-0055.

Times Square Angel plays through December 23 at The Actors Workshop, 1009 Chartres, 236-1844.


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