The Spirit Returns
Since 1988, the Alley Theatre has gently reminded Houstonians of the true meaning of Christmas with a lovely rendition of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol. This year's dark and moving production, adapted and originally put together years ago by Michael Wilson, stars Jeffrey Bean as the meanest dude in Christmas history — old Ebenezer Scrooge.
He's cheap, grouchy and stuck with the name Ebenezer, but that doesn't stop him from making us laugh with his wicked old ways or, eventually, breaking our hearts with his sad childhood and lonely old life. Directed with tender care by James Black (who also plays housekeeper Mrs. Dilber and scary, chain-rattling ghost Jacob Marley), the production has managed to stay amazingly fresh over the decades.
Tony Straiges's artfully minimalist set frames the stage with two winding, wooden staircases hooked together by a long, wobbly bridge. With this dynamic apparatus, Black is able to make us feel the incredible journey Scrooge makes across time and space as he travels from his cold counting house to Bob Cratchit's sad little kitchen, from the miser's boyhood school to his dark and lonely grave.
The spirits of Christmas Past (Julia Krohn) and Present (David Rainey) both charmed and spooked the youngest members of a recent matinee audience, some of whom climbed into their mothers' laps over the course of the story. Both Krohn and Rainey have built larger-than-life characters that fill up the theater with musical speaking voices as they pass out sage wisdom on keeping a generous spirit.
The rest of the cast adds depth to a Victorian story that isn't all goodness and light. (In fact, when Marley climbs out of the fiery pit in the middle of the stage, it's pretty clear that hell awaits all those who don't repent and reform). Elizabeth Bunch is especially memorable as both the funny, big-fannied Mrs. Fezziwig and the angry Mrs. Cratchit. Paul Hope is also great fun as Mr. Fezziwig. Chris Hutchison makes a sympathetic Cratchit, and Charles Swan is memorable as Mr. Topper, an oddball Christmas party guest.
Of course, none of this would mean anything without Scrooge, and Bean makes a richly conceived miser. He's not quite as funny as Black, who has played the old geezer in seasons past, but Bean is perhaps sweeter as the reformed Scrooge who wakes up from his awe-inspiring trip and finds the true meaning of Christmas.
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