The Alley Theatre has returned to its home base after the bashing from Hurricane Harvey and a relocation to the University of Houston. The Alley's main stage, the Hubbard, was spared damage, but the lower-level Neuhaus, the theater's blackbox, along with everything else downstairs (dressing rooms, prop storage) was obliterated. They say the below-street level venue will open in time for the world premiere of Suzanne Vega and Duncan Sheik's “musical celebration” of writer Carson McCullers, Lover, Beloved, in early February. The estimated cast of renovation is budgeted at $18 million. Insurance covers $7 million. You do the math.
With its themes of redemption, charity, and community, what more fitting way to reopen the Alley than Michael Wilson's adaptation of Charles Dickens' immortal tale.
A Christmas Carol, A Ghost Story of Christmas has been an Alley Theatre cash cow and theatrical tradition since its 1990 premiere. It is big, bold, and splashy. Expanding the spooky quotient, Wilson shovels Halloween into the seasonal tale, larding it with ghastly apparitions who appear right at the start of the play, gyrating and dancing a spectral gavotte of death, accompanied by beastly clangs and ominous thunderclaps. It's an eyeful of an opening, but turns the tale mega-creepy much too soon. Scrooge spies Marley's face in his doorknocker, not through a parade of murdered countrymen. Dickens' little tale never quite recovers from the slasher-movie jolt, while other little pinpricks keep the show reeling: a bit of English panto (housekeeper Mrs. Dilber in drag, though nicely chewed on by Dylan Godwin), a bit of Dickens verisimilitude (the author's rich prose), a bit of showy stagecraft (Marley's ghost arriving as if from the pits of hell). Though stuffed with extra bits, there's enough mince pie and cider aroma of authentic Dickens about it too.
Dickens’ ageless story of Ebenezer Scrooge's reclamation has proved impervious to odd, intemperate stagings, witness Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol. If you crave tradition, the Alley Theatre’s lavish production dazzles and confounds. It's fairly straight-forward in its retelling, complete with dialogue lifted verbatim from the book. Dickens would appreciate the literate script, especially since his Victorian pearls are abundantly sprinkled throughout, such as “there’s more of gravy than the grave about you,” said to Marley’s ghost by a dismissive Scrooge, who attributes the horrible apparition to a bout of indigestion.
I'm happy to report that the company's old chestnut looks exactly as it's looked since its premiere: same Victorian ironwork and wood plank bridge upstage rendered by designer Tony Straiges, same smoggy lithograph backdrop of olde London, same overbearing sound effects. The whistling steam clock is new, as are all the props that were destroyed in the flood waters. Alejo Vietti's costumes positively gleam this year. They look great. There are yards of satin, wool, and velvet that catch Rui Rita's spinning disco-era lighting. The production glimmers.
Reprising their roles from seasons past, the familiar Alley roster plays to the rafters and enjoys the romp. Veteran Jeffrey Bean positively twinkles as “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner” Scrooge. His morning-after redemption scene is a marvel of timing, as he plays to the audience with sly bits of perfect characterization. He's always a wonder to watch, and Scrooge fits him like a toasty mitten.
The Spirit of Christmas Past (Melissa Pritchett), while not at all as described by Dickens, at least is the embodiment of glowing nostalgia, like an errant Mrs. Claus. She doesn’t sport a beam of light from her head, as does the weird boy/man in the original, but nevertheless radiates merriment and beneficence. In a bright reveal, she arrives on sleigh, all buoyant and glittering. She seems made of snowflakes.
The Spirit of Christmas Present (David Rainey) is the truest facsimile, a cornucopia of munificence. Swathed in ample green velvet robe with a candled crown of antlers, he glides forth surrounded by laughter and sumptuous holiday trimmings. Bestowing his blessings of Christmas cheer, he surprisingly, dramatically, reveals his children, the feral apparitions of Want and Ignorance, sheltered under his velvet. The presentation sends forth a chill that’s colder than any December wind off the Thames. The most theatrical of writers, Dickens knew the perfect moment when to shift gears. The preaching comes swift and unflinching.
The terrifying and noxious Spirit of Christmas Future (Shawn Hamilton, though listed in the Playbill as “Himself,” as this role has always been credited) arrives on a large Victorian steampunk tricycle, flapping his batwing costume like a refugee from a touring production of Die Fledermaus. This is not a good idea. There's no horror in an operetta ghost on a bike, even one all dressed in black.
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The rest of the cast is drawn as if by the novella's illustrator John Leech. Fezziwig (Paul Hope) is bumptious, rosy-cheeked cheer; Bob Cratchit (Chris Hutchison) is careworn and overworked; Old Joe (Charles Krohn) is greasy and grubbing; Belle (Emily Neves), young Scrooge's fiancee, is resigned to give him up; nephew Fred (Jay Sullivan) is optimistic and brimming with holiday spirit.
By October 1843, Charles Dickens was fast becoming England’s preeminent author. Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, and Nicholas Nickelby had made him a household name, but his last two novels, serialized in his own weekly periodical, were given the cold shoulder. He needed money fast. Dickens reworked a scene he had told in Pickwick Papers about a grumpy old fool visited by ghosts at Christmas who show him visions of what’s to come if he doesn’t mend his ways. Six weeks later his “ghostly little book” was published in time for the holidays. A Christmas Carol was a universal sensation, and helped create our holiday traditions of charity, hearty celebration, and good will toward men.
Hurricane Harvey, whose effects will be felt far into Christmases yet to come, has done terrible damage to our theaters. Every venue is hurting in some way: shuffling schedules, dwindling audiences, recouping profits, pleading for money. Houston's preeminent company, a Tony Award-winner for Regional Theatre, is slowly on the road to recovery. The Alley Theatre, along with Dickens' unconquerable message, returns home to give us all a taste of hope.
A Christmas Carol continues through December 30 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays and 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. For information, call 713-220-5700 or visit alleytheatre.org. $26-$103.