In 1843 Charles Dickens was badly in need of a hit to re-establish his reputation and fill his dwindling coffers. The 31-year-old author's Martin Chuzzlewit had fizzled, and the public wondered if Dickens had lost his touch. He dashed off A Christmas Carol just in time for a holiday publication. It was one of his shortest works, but it sold more copies in the 1840s than the Bible, and today, Ebenezer Scrooge is almost as well known as Santa Claus.
Scrooge's story has been retold in countless ways, from plays starring classically trained English actors to films featuring the Muppets. Local theater audiences can choose from a pair of Scrooges this season: the Alley Theatre's A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas and Theatre Under the Stars's Scrooge - The Musical.
The Alley's staging of the tale, a decade-long tradition, has been revamped this year. The production will feature a new score based on carols, new costumes and scenery, and nightmarish dream projections that play up the "ghost story." In fact, the only thing that's not changing is the memorable James Black as Ebenezer.
"This version, to me, is startlingly new, very moving," says artistic director Gregory Boyd. "[It] rekindled things in my understanding that I had forgotten or lost over the years." But at the same time, Boyd says, it "returns more faithfully to Dickens, [restoring] some of the great language and spirited sentiment of the original."
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"Faithful" is not what you'd call Scrooge - The Musical. First commissioned for TUTS in 1979 and revived occasionally, it features a jive-talking "Ghost of All Christmases" (with his own female backing group), modern special effects and disco music.
"We wanted to do something off the Richter scale. Something wacky, wild and loony," says TUTS founder Frank Young. "When you're doing a story that everybody knows, the only way to make it interesting is to have a lot of contemporary [aspects] but still tell the traditional [story]."
And why has that traditional story become such a cultural touchstone? "Dickens single-handedly created our modern notion of what the Christmas celebration is in the West," Boyd sums up. "It is the strongest metaphor for rebirth that we have. That rebirth can happen now. That the world can change. It's a tremendously powerful message. That's its hold on people's imaginations."
Call the Alley at (713)228-8421 or TUTS at (713)558-2600 or see the Press's stage listings for more information.