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.

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Peter Szatmary