By JOHN DeMERS
Some old stories cry out to be made new again, especially during the holiday season. And when you have an old story like the one Charles Dickens told about Ebenezer Scrooge, you have the perfect co-conspirator in the Alley Theatre.
As yet another generation discovers what Dickens himself called a “ghost story” – for that it is, especially at the Alley – few manage to walk into the theater totally fresh. I, for instance, grew up watching “Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol,” just as my children grew up watching “Mickey’s Christmas Carol.” And before anybody says anything too sarcastic, both animated shows do capture the emotional essence of Scrooge, the three spirits who haunt him on Christmas Eve, and his dealings with others before and then after that death-filled, life-changing night. The same can be said of the flourish of theatrical releases, calling down Dickens’ not-at-all-pretty truth on the likes of Albert Finney and even Bill Murray.
But there is the story itself, still ensconced between covers for anyone willing to read it. And there is the now-annual Alley production, cagily adapted from the original by Michael Wilson and now directed by Alley regular James Black. This production, unlike some holiday traditionals, has actually seemed better every time I’ve seen it. It serves up more of the two things multi-age audiences enjoy more than anything – chills and chuckles – while still managing to touch and, more important to the spirit of Dickens, shatter our hearts.
In some ways, Tim Burton would be right at home directing this production, since the story is told in the macabre midst of not-happy-looking white ghosts who cavort wildly (if balletically) as though life were one long Dia de los Muertos. The Alley’s highly tuned sense of schtick is as likely to make fun as to make horror out of this fact, however. Still, these gruesome presences remind us that, long before the Ghost of Christmas Future arrives like the ultimate undertaker (and even before the chain-bearing Jacob Marley climbs up from the red-glowing pit of hell), this is a holiday story surrounded on all sides by the grave.
Dickens surely meant it to be so. If all Scrooge had needed was a bit of attitude adjustment, he could have simply gone to Cancun. What he needed to become was a new man, and it required the fright of his life to make him become one. It is a credit to Wilson, Black and the cast led by Jeffrey Bean as Scrooge that they show us such a good time while teaching us such a hard lesson.
Several Alley regulars have played Scrooge over the years, and all have been excellent – even if a little different from one to the next. It’s hard, though, to imagine a better Scrooge than the one set forth by Bean: properly small-minded and miserable at the start, hateful but then hurt as we come to know him through his revealed past, frightened, broken and finally resurrected at the end. The story of Scrooge is so familiar from so many versions, it’s difficult to guess what the acting challenges are. But if the first and last challenge of all acting is to make us believe this remarkable story has never been told before, then Bean’s Scrooge is a stirring success.
The cast of A Christmas Carol at the Alley is huge, even if you know the regulars well enough to see them turn up in different get-ups, again and again. There’s even a nifty tip of the hat to The Wizard of Oz – the way characters from Dorothy’s adventure keep a remarkable foot in the alleged real world – but I’ll leave that for you to figure out. Standout performances include Chris Hutchison as Bob Cratchit, Elizabeth Bunch as Mrs. Cratchit, Andrew Love as Scrooge’s nephew Fred and John Johnston as a hilariously befuddled bachelor who seems likely to stay that way. The ever-remarkable David Rainey scares the bejesus out of us as Marley’s ghost, but also does a lovable-laughable turn in drag as Scrooge’s overworked housekeeper Mrs. Dilber.
I’d like to praise the three actors playing the Spirits of Christmas past, present and future, starting with Julia Krohn and James Belcher. But the horrifyingly silent and relentless Spirit of Christmas Future is listed in the Alley program only as “Himself” – a message, perhaps, that he might be coming for us next. “I’m Charles Dickens,” I can almost hear the author say, “and I’ve approved this message.”
Photos by Mike McCormick: (top) Jeffrey Bean; (middle) Chris Hutchison and Duncan Lambert; (bottom) Jeffrey Bean and James Belcher.