By JOHN DeMERS
The Alley Theatre hedges its bets each holiday season by presenting its fairly traditional version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in tandem with David Sedaris’ wildly irreverent Santaland Diaries – the first filling the huge theater upstairs, the second filling the smaller space down under. Oddly but delightfully, many Houstonians now have a holiday tradition of seeing both shows – the first more likely with the kids.
We’ll be checking out Santaland starring Todd Waite next week. This time, we’ve got to report that if you’ve loved Christmas Carol at the Alley the past few years, you are certain to love it again. With company stalwart James Black in the director’s chair, rather than onstage, the update originally created by Michael Wilson comes off as surprisingly un-stodgy. Some of that, of course, comes from sly bits of attitude that go for an easy, arguably cheap sitcom-level laugh. But neither at the show’s important conclusion nor at any juncture along the way does such license undermine the hard lessons Dickens is teaching. If anything, license seems to set the hard lessons in relief, making them feel harder still.
As most understand by now, even if they’ve read only Oliver Twist from the Dickens shelf or seen only the Lionel Bart musical Oliver, the author was militant in his commitment to the poor. There is no record that Dickens himself ever “Occupied” anything, but he surely would have been tempted to. The now-familiar emotional journey of one Ebeneezer Scrooge through the revelations of three ghosts on Christmas Eve doesn’t teach him a thing we don’t all know to be true. And really, as what Scrooge decides to do is personal rather than political, it comes off as heartwarming-with-an-edge. In other words, profoundly human, profoundly real.
For those who’ve seen TV versions of A Christmas Carol featuring everybody from Mr. Magoo (my childhood favorite) to Mickey Mouse, the darkness and even scariness of the Alley production might come as a shock. Still, the story has to be one of literature’s first cases of “scared straight,” since the threat of dying alone, despised and purposeless is what turns Scrooge around. Presumably, nothing less would have worked. An extra set of ghosts garbed in eerie white, still carrying the instruments of their murders, joins the spirit of Jacob Marley chained to a very real-seeming hell as near constant reminders of what this author saw in the afterlife for those who don’t live and give in the present one.
The Alley cast, led by Jeffrey Bean as Scrooge, seems largely unchanged from last year – as in, why tinker with a very good thing? This is a perfect role for Bean, mean, small-minded and sniveling through all but the last few minutes, then hysterically joyful at the end. Other standouts of a near-flawless performance include James Belcher as the Ghost of Christmas Present and Chris Hutchison as Tiny Tim’s genuine and loving father, the famously overworked and underpaid Bob Cratchit. David Rainey is back again too, as Marley’s ghost and, even more memorably, done up in wig and Victorian dress as Scrooge’s bizarre housekeeper, Mrs. Dilber.
Alley Theater photo: Jeffrey Bean and James Belcher