What the Dickens?

Poor Charles Dickens. He must spend six weeks of every year spinning in his English grave. Each holiday, A Christmas Carol, one of his most charming creations, gets butchered. Take, for example, Fred Spielman, Janice Torre and Don Wilson's Scrooge, The Stingiest Man in Town, now running at The Masquerade Theatre. The musicalized version of the great writer's tale might best be described as a crime against literature.

The program, which lists such icky-sounding tunes as "The Birthday Party of the King" and "Yes, There Is a Santa Claus," is the first clue of what's to come. But one tries to have an open mind. Of course, the flimsy set at Masquerade, consisting of plywood and cinder blocks painted to look like red-brick buildings and green, leafy trees (never mind the fact that this is Christmastime in England), doesn't do much to inspire confidence. The tiny theater on North Shepherd has been up and running for well over five years now and can no longer blame its poor production values on youthful inexperience. The company needs to bring some technical expertise into the fold if it wants to be taken seriously.

Director Phillip Duggins does have a knack for rounding up musical talent. And oftentimes, the quality of the singing at Masquerade lifts the theater's productions out of the tawdry muck of community theater.

But not even Pavarotti could save this show.

The best thing that can be said about the score is that it's rather cheerful. At moments -- like during the title song, "The Stingiest Man in Town" -- the show skips along with rambunctious glee. Mr. Scrooge's charwoman, Mrs. Dilber, and her beggar buddies get in a few good digs at the old curmudgeon. And the singing is rousing, loud and happy.

More often, however, both the music and the lyrics drown in great gooey gobs of embarrassingly mawkish sentimentality. "Golden Dreams" and "It Might Have Been" eschew Scrooge's past and tell the story of his lost chance at love with pretty Belle. Both Joshua Wright and Monica Passley sing beautifully. But neither performer is an actor. They often stand with their fists glued to their sides, staring wide-eyed at the audience as they sing these romance-novel tunes full of swooping notes and Hallmark lyrics. Luther Chakurian manages to turn the usually amusing character of Jacob Marley into melodrama at its most bombastic, even trilling his r's at points during "I Wear a Chain." And when Scrooge (Terry Jones) breaks down into tears during a song about Tiny Tim called "One Little Boy" (lyrics include lines like "one little boy is not a broken toy"), one can't help but wonder that the ghost of Dickens himself doesn't appear to shake chains at the stage.

But the music is not all that goes wrong in this show. Believe it or not, a great deal of dancing has been school-glued to the surface of the tale. And by dancing, I don't mean the familiar Victorian parlor steps that are often part of A Christmas Carol productions. Here, devils, "lost souls" and spirits dance across the stage between cardboard cutout gravestones. Dressed in dark clothes, they do a sort of ballet-modern-dance fusion thing in which they run around, spinning, leaping and scaring Scrooge into moral righteousness. Recently, Masquerade has added charming dancer Laura Gray to the company. But even her talents (she also choreographed this production) can't make dancing devils feel logical in Dickens's world. Most often, the excessive amount of moving disrupts the production. Even your typical party dancing is overdone here. The moments when the singers who don't act or dance are forced to do all three at once are inadvertently comical.

There are a few bright spots in this otherwise sad little production. As the Ghost of Christmas Present, Ilich Guardiola strikes a glowing balance between humor and tender goodwill. Also, Rebekah Dahl's Mrs. Dilber and her rag-picker friend (Russell Freeman) provide some good laughs in the otherwise sour show.

In the preface to his 1843 edition of A Christmas Carol, Dickens said, "I have endeavored in this Ghostly little book to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly..." The three playwrights responsible for Scrooge, the Stingiest Man in Town have penned a show that might haunt us -- but it sure isn't pleasant.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Lee Williams