Old Tales Told New

Of all the things that can go wrong with direction, perhaps the kindest for the audience is direction that, while peculiarly misinterpreting the material, uses actors to their fullest ability. That's precisely what happens in Stages's current production of the 1960s musical She Loves Me. A light comedy that swirls around the love lives of perfume store clerks, She Loves Me is the work of composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick, the same team that created Fiddler on the Roof. Director Debbie Dickinson has taken their material and crafted from it a pretty little show, but one that lacks a romantic core, and often stumbles because of it.

The story revolves around two clerks, Amalia and Georg, who are both writing letters to sweethearts they've never met. Much of She Loves Me is as sweetly nostalgic as the idea of a Lonely Hearts Club, especially the 1930s setting: Maraczek's Eastern European parfumerie, where ladies shop for scented soaps and Mona Lisa cold cream. As is typical of musical comedy love stories, Amalia and Georg bicker at every opportunity. As the musical's resident (and lovable) dunce, Ladislav, tells you, Georg and Amalia fight not because they hate each other, as they think, but because they like each other. Unfortunately, there isn't an atom of spark between Jennifer Arisco as Amalia and Greg Coles as Georg. The problem stems as much from direction -- the actors are both in their own little vacuums -- as from possible miscasting. It's hard to make a musical fly when the leads don't gel, especially when, as is the case with She Loves Me, the material can't stand very well on its own.

The ensemble of voices who turn out perfect pitch in the show's big production numbers, though, provide some high points. Especially fun is a song that mimics the dialogue at a crowded cosmetic counter -- shoppers singing their overlapping questions about the effectiveness of wrinkle cream and their requests for the ultimate kiss-proof lipstick. A handful of solos, particularly those of the ditsy counter girl, Illona, are nicely done. Played by the saucy Holli Golden, Illona is a breath of relief, providing a romantic subplot that has real tension. Golden's coy solo about finding love on a trip to the library is a delight, and she relishes the moment like a proper coquette, batting her eyelashes and flouncing about in her leopard coat.

The scene that really crashes the show is Dickinson's interpretation of a secret lovers' meeting set in a romantic restaurant with an especially clumsy waiter. Here, the director has made gentle humor into high camp, and the result is disastrous. Actors run around banging plates, and any genuine pity for Amalia, who sits waiting for a date that never shows up, is punctured by the frequent and annoying sound of breaking glass. The over-the-top scene also fails to earn the laughter it's so desperately gunning for.

It's hard to see a retrospective production go so completely awry, especially when Stages has produced such good work this season. The cold comfort may be that She Loves Me is the lightweight loser in a string of otherwise fine productions.

It's rumored that this holiday season is the last one Houston audiences will have a chance to see Michael Wilson's sooty, spooky version of Dickens's A Christmas Carol. If the rumor's true, it's a shame, because Wilson's adaptation successfully marries the tale's sorrow with a sense of humor that appeals to younger audience members, who flock to performances in velvet dresses and little bow ties. What makes this Christmas Carol palatable for the rest of the audience, though, is the unabashedly Gothic production elements -- Scrooge's dark, cavernous house, plenty of lightning, cobwebs and gloomy organs.

First produced in 1989 with Wilson directing, this year's production has been restaged by Alley company actress Shelley Williams. Wilson's version of the play is as filmic (Dracula meets Shakespeare) as it is dramatic, including snippets of recorded dialogue as flashback and bolts of lighting that recall stylish, if overdone, horror films. When Scrooge opens an interior chamber door, his figure is shot through with streams of light and fog, aptly foreshadowing the ghostly journey on which he's about to embark.

As played by James Black, Scrooge isn't quite as gnarled or as funny as other actors have been in the role, but Black's quieter, contemplative interpretation allows the play's other significant characters -- and indeed the play's story -- to shine. John Feltch plays a droll double role as Scrooge's housekeeper, Mrs. Dilber, and the ghost of Jacob Marley, but few other ensemble members are particularly noteworthy. Like finely oiled machine parts that neatly produce a product, the acting company's work in this production is familial and smooth, an appropriate choice for the material.

It's certainly a scarier experience than the countless other Christmas Carols in production across the country. That is, in part, what makes Wilson's version so interesting. Not that this is a particularly revisionist Christmas Carol: There are plenty of familiar elements -- friendly ghosts, dirty children, hearty belly laughs from Fezziwig -- to make the production genuine enough for Dickens purists.

What draws audiences in is simply that A Christmas Carol is a fine play; it centers on a risky journey (Scrooge's visits to the past); it has magic (ghosts); and it ends with an awakening. All those elements are preserved in Wilson's version, and colored by another distinctly theatrical tradition -- a man playing a woman's role. Feltch keeps his usual deviousness on low volume as Scrooge's housekeeper, and creates a frowzy individual who delights Scrooge by her humble appropriation of his own characteristics: opportunism and gluttony.

The sweeping set, the wonderfully Victorian costumes and the solid acting makes this Christmas Carol something like sifting through an antique family photo album. The faces are familiar, but they're distant enough in their likenesses to make you shiver as you laugh.

She Loves Me plays through January 5 at Stages, 3201 Allen Parkway, 527-0220.

A Christmas Carol plays through December 29 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue, 228-8421.

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Megan Halverson