The Alley Foot-Warmer

When you think about it, there are a lot of similarities between the Alley's perennial production of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol and a fruitcake. Both mercifully come just once a year. Both have that hard-as-a-brick permanence that hints of an indestructible ritual, no matter how much you might want to raze or trash them. And they both have that roll-your-eyes kind of charm that makes annoying traditions as comforting as an old pair of socks.

Of course, not even finely tuned traditions are above occasional tinkering, which is what the Alley and director Stephen Rayne have done with their Carol. The "new" production that Rayne created last year was wonderfully dark and Victorian -- all done in monochromatic grays and browns, looking very bleak, very lonely, very Dickensian. This year there's more color and more good cheer, as though the whole thing had been glazed over with Christmas sugar. This caramelized coating undercuts some of the potency of Rayne's adaptation. Still, the audience, full of wide-eyed children who had ceremoniously marched to their velvet seats on opening night, dressed up in ruffled dresses and tiny suits while clinging to their parents' hands, audibly oohed and aahed when Scrooge's colorful puppets popped out of the darkness of his memories to dance across the back of the stage, or when the town, full of signs that made it look a bit like our own little Rice Village, rolled onto the stage.

Another change is in the casting. Alley favorite James Black, who for the past decade has played the hawkish, miserly Scrooge with a great deal of eccentric glee, has been replaced by James Belcher, who makes a good grump. Though his Scrooge isn't quite so despicable when he growls that any person who believes in Christmas ought to be "buried with a stake of holly in his heart" -- nor quite so girlishly giddy once he's reformed -- Belcher hunches his crotchety back into a perfectly presentable curmudgeon who can humbug with the best of them.

What's more, on opening night, an ailing John Tyson, whose wonderfully bumbling antics and great big heart can turn even the thankless role of the righteous Bob Cratchit into an utter joy, was replaced by his handsome understudy Christopher Patton, who did his best to fill Tyson's shoes.

As the dirty-faced Mrs. Dilber, Scrooge's resourceful and cockney-voiced charwoman, Bettye Fitzpatrick is perfectly grumbly, the epitome of Dickens's street life. Her exchange with Old Joe, the rag picker played with an oily grin by Charles Krohn, is rich with the sort of details that make this production a favorite: The accents, the costumes, the almost bawdy jokes are all from another time that has been made mythic by Dickens's lush writing. The Alley renders this world so convincingly that children from all over the theater scrambled to the edge of the stage at intermission and timidly touched the proscenium arch that has been decorated with gothic marblelike columns and scary gargoyles.

Most of all, the Alley's Christmas Carol has come to be a marker of the season. And just like its soul mate, the fruitcake, it returns every year, whether we want it or not.

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Lee Williams