A Tale of Two Carols

The gleeful magic of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol is more enchanting than ever, thanks to the Alley Theatre. It's true that this production, adapted and directed by Stephen Rayne, looks the same on the outside as last year's rather schoolmarmishly sour show (see "So Many Christmas Shows, So Little Time," December 6, 2001), but a bit of Dickensian magic seems to have slipped onto the Alley stage this go-round. Somehow the same actors in the same roles with the same set and direction seem much more inspired by the good old Protestant tale this year. And the story that teaches the foibles of greed and the virtues of giving practically bubbles across the stage like the joyfully moving celebration that Dickens himself must have dreamed it would be.

The enormous change this year emanates from the happy energy of the cast. As Scrooge, James Belcher seems especially tickled to be prancing about in the old curmudgeon's tattered coat (the hook-nosed miser won't even spend his precious pennies on himself). To the children's giggles, he bellows great groans and grunts whenever he sits his old bones down. Even the grown-ups laugh when he peeps his wide eyes about, looking for promised spirits in the night. And in the triumphant end, when Scrooge conquers his greedy past, the moment is full of the sort of syrupy sweetness that should only come once a year when our palates are ready for this sort of sentimental gorging.

John Tyson's Bob Cratchit is also perfect, cowering under Scrooge's endless growlings about waste, and warming his gloveless fingers over the tiny flame of his reading candle. When he speaks of Tiny Tim, his usually timorous voice goes all gooey with emotion. Likewise, Philip Lehl makes a charismatic Fred, the good nephew who asks Scrooge to Christmas dinner only to be bah-humbugged out the door.

Visually the show is as gorgeous as ever, with Rui Rita's lighting creating all sorts of ghostly delights. Darkness permeates the stage so that when bright scenes and colorful characters appear and then vanish with the wave of a spooky hand, it all seems as evanescent as a dream. And Steven Edis's haunting music slides from the sadness of Scrooge's haunting memories to the giddy joy of Christmas with lyrical ease.

In the age of 5 a.m. holiday sales and mall parking that's as fierce as an English soccer game, it seems downright ludicrous to speak seriously about any sort of "Christmas spirit." But there's also something so sad about these times that it makes the childlike world of Dickens's A Christmas Carol hard to resist. The good writer, who really did want to champion the underdog, has created a charmed space where the evil are redeemed and the littlest child inspires everyone to care. And when that world is rendered with the tender joy and simple grace that the Alley company has found for this year's production, only the meanest Scrooge would announce such a tale humbug.

Anyone familiar with Scrooge's story knows that Jacob Marley got ripped off in the afterlife. For his miserly sins, he's condemned to wander the ghost world in chains, trolling around for lost souls on Christmas Eve. Meanwhile, Scrooge gets a second chance just because old Marley is good enough to warn the tightwad to change his wicked ways before it's too late. So why is it that Scrooge gets a second chance while Marley is SOL in the salvation department? This odd if astute question is the starting point for Tom Mula's Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol, now running at Stages Repertory Theatre.

This curious alternative to the traditional story is a bit long-winded. The whole play is told like a drawn-out Christmas story; the scenes are acted out while the narrative continues in a constant voice-over. The strategy evokes a quaint Dickensian style, but by the end of the first act it feels tedious. We learn that Marley comes back to warn Scrooge in an attempt to save his own sad soul from the depths of hell. If he can turn the rotten-hearted codger into a pussycat by morning, Marley (Jason Douglas) will win his freedom and get to travel anywhere in the heavens he so desires.

The second act gains momentum as Marley labors over Scrooge's pinched soul, and we learn lots about Marley's troubled life. His story is so much sorrier than Scrooge's bleak past, it's no wonder he learned to love money more than people. He gets help in the form of a "bogle" (Luci Christian), a tiny spirit who worries over Marley's every move, nudging him along whenever he gets too downhearted.

On stage almost constantly, both Douglas and Christian radiate good humor and infectious energy. When Christian smiles, her whole face breaks into a blaze of dimpled sweetness that proves impossible to resist. And Douglas, who is a good two feet taller than the tiny bit of dynamite that is Christian, evokes a funny, frazzled, long-limbed hopelessness. Under Rob Bundy's tight direction, they are a fine pair of clowns who fill the stage with warmth.

The whole thing could use some trimming; some of the children in the audience were fast asleep by the story's end. But the grown-ups were clearly cheered by Mula's wholesome reverence for all things Christmas. It's nice to imagine that Scrooge isn't the only one who gets a second chance.

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Lee Williams