I am no Scrooge. One of the most pleasant men you could ever meet, I love cats, children, the perfect chilled martini, and the joy of Christmas. I weep during Pinocchio. I may not always send thank-you notes, but nobody's perfect. I also love good theater and know what it is.
The Alley Theatre's cash-cow Christmas presentation of Charles Dickens' “ghostly little book,” A Christmas Carol (1990), has been crafted as precisely as if by Prince Andrew's press agent. It has been lovingly manufactured.
If all the destitute children in the London lampblack factories had been ordered to construct a play, they might have created a true-to-life Oliver Twist, but instead made up this pseudo, musical comedy Annie.
The Alley's Carol possesses enough stage geegaws, slasher-movie effects, and more fog than San Francisco. This version has been around since President George H.W. Bush. Its time is up. This production has got to go.
Judging by the opening night's reaction, I am a minority of one.
No lie, a woman behind me sobbed during Act I when young Scrooge (Jay Sullivan) renounced his love Belle (Teresa Zimmermann) for his new-found god of gold. I admit, it's a good intimate scene, beautifully nuanced by the actors, accurately Dickensian in tone and dialogue, but is it worthy of out-right keening? Not even I shed a tear. Perhaps if Bambi had passed by in the background, I might have burst out crying.
During intermission, the Anne and Albert Chao Terrace overlooking Texas Avenue was abuzz with people discussing the production as if it were some classic Chekhov or O'Neill. I overheard heated discussions about costumes (by Alejo Vietti, which are lovely by the way); Rui Rita's blinding lights after Scrooge's ghostly visit by the Spirit of Christmas Present (an energetic Josh Morrison); and the prancing of comic housekeeper Mrs. Dilber (David Matranga), a Benny Hill-inspired drag persona. Someone even praised the child actors, who, to be charitable, seemed to be missing about two weeks rehearsal. Everyone seemed enchanted. I ordered another martini.
The second act features the Cratchits (Chris Hutchison as careworn Bob, Elizabeth Bunch as stalwart Mom, Noble Hutchison as Tiny Tim, and others, who serve as wallpaper) and the noxious Spirit of Christmas Future, listed in the Playbill as “Himself.” Ohhh, spooky. (I don't think it comes as any surprise that the actor who plays clock maker Mr. Marvel also plays this spirit: Shawn Hamilton.) But how would anyone know, since this phantom rides a steampunk velocipede and is hidden from view? Does it matter who's behind the operetta bat costume?
We're now in anti-Dickens territory, where adapter/original director Michael Wilson completely takes over and smudges whatever Victoriana remains. Throughout, there's plenty of rich Dickens text to savor (“more gravy than the grave,” “your reclamation, then,” “I don't mind going if a lunch is provided.”), but too often the great writer is kicked to the background while those ghastly dancing ghosts gavotte incessantly, or the thunder thunders, or John Gromada's original music tinkles like a lightweight Beetlejuice knockoff. We don't need second-hand Dickens.
But no matter what the Alley does to it, it's still Dickens underneath. Chris Hutchison's empathetic, overworked Cratchit is picture-perfect; as is Paul Hope's bumptious Fezziwig. Though curtailed in stage time, Hope is prime Dickens, as if xeroxed by the novella's illustrator John Leech. Morrison's Spirit of Christmas Present is the other true facsimile, a cornucopia of munificence. Swathed in velvet with a candled crown of antlers, he glides forth surrounded by laughter and sumptuous holiday trimmings. Bestowing his blessings of Christmas cheer, he 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.
Not at all resembling Dickens' description, the Spirit of Christmas Past (Melissa Pritchett) is at least 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, made of snowflakes.
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In the early scenes, David Rainey's Scrooge is a trifle too nice, not quite the “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner” as Dickens enthusiastically describes. But his morning-after redemption scene bubbles with joyous exuberance. The woman behind me sniffled contentedly.
One can't deny the tale's classic power. Not since the Gospels has there been a Christmas story that so encapsulates the abiding seasonal message of forgiveness, redemption, and renewal. For all his demons – and he had quite a few – Dickens created our modern version of the Christmas spirit. His vision swept the world.
I wish the Alley had a new vision. Bah, humbug. Who listens to me?
Performances are scheduled through December 29 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays though Sundays; and 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Some weekday matinees are available at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. For information, call 713-220-5700 or visit alleytheatre.org. $26-$92.