A kinder Christmas Carol

DTC's adaptation of Dickens' classic lacks surprise but conjures up that holiday glow

Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol because he needed money, and it's been produced for that same sound reason for more than a century.

It might have proved more interesting, however, if the Dallas Theater Center had staged a modern adaptation of Dickens' Oliver Twist this year rather than the all-too-familiar season staple, especially in light of the orphanage revival advocated by pols for America's own urchins.

But folks don't like to be overly challenged during this festive season, so all forms of entertainment carry an implicit mandate to be respectfully warm and glowing. Besides, the women of Dallas are hot for a venue to wear their Laura Ashley mother-and-daughter holiday wear, and the matching red and green outfits were positively resplendent on opening night at the Arts District Theater.

All cattiness aside, DTC's 11th production of the holiday standard is a loving and graceful adaptation, touched by a lush elegance and unusual sense of humor. It is marred only by a few lackluster performances, including, unfortunately, that of Henry Stram, who plays Ebenezer Scrooge.

Gerald Freedman's genteel version of the Dickens tale begins with the Cleavelands, an idealized 19th-century nuclear family. They sit snugly by the fire as the mother (Kitchen Dog Theater's Sally Nystuen) reads A Christmas Carol aloud, and the tale comes alive through the eyes of her young son, Master William. Played by the scene-stealing Benedict Nguyen-Lee, William then transforms into Tiny Tim as the story unfolds. The rest of the Cleaveland family is also recast in the Christmas fable.

As the Christmas spirits past, present, and future reveal themselves to Scrooge, a richly Gothic, Victorian set underscores a life that grows more and more bereft of spirit and joy. Designed by the distinguished John Ezell, the sets for each scene suggests the free-floating whimsy and dreamlike fantasy of a Chagall painting: parasols, lamps, chandeliers, bird cages, a rocking horse, tuba, and a globe are festooned in attic-like disarray above the set. The use of stored furniture and old treasures hanging helter-skelter suggest a man displaced--a heart on hold.

Scrooge's foreboding bedroom furniture is lit pea-green, the headboard of his bed grimly decorated with a gargoyle face. A heavy door drops into his bedroom as if crossing a moat, and the fires of Hades lick Scrooge's bedposts as the ghost of his longtime partner Jacob Marley makes the first visitation and warns of what is to come.

The production is graced not only with a riveting set but several first-rate actors, many of them Dallas-based. (Artistic director Richard Hamburger has heard too often that he doesn't hire enough local actors.) The Dallas talent pool includes Karen Lee Pickett, who does a fine job as Mrs. Cratchit, and Jennifer Ronald, last seen as the ill-fated Wendla in Spring Awakening. Ronald makes for a sparkling Martha Cratchit, but she better watch it or she'll continue to be cast as a fresh-faced Victorian teen. Akin Babatunde, artistic director of the Vivid Theater Ensemble of Dallas, offers a lively portrayal of Mr. Fezzwig, and local treasure Lynn Mathis makes for an unusually campy ghost of Jacob Marley, dressed in silver lame and a white mask of death. (Formidable Dallas actor Sally Nystuen, however, is practically wasted in this production, although she proves herself an able narrator.)

The presentation is also an inspired example of color-blind casting. Tiny Tim is played by an Asian-American, while his father, Bob Cratchit, is played by Billy Eugene Jones, an African-American. Other roles have also been cast without regard for the race, creed, or color of the character, and the result is neither distracting nor unconvincing. Here, it is good acting rather than similar appearances that makes the Cratchit family believable.

Less real, however, is old Ebenezer himself. He is played by a seasoned New York actor, Henry Stram, who has played at LaMama, The Actors' Studio, and the Joseph Papp Public Theater. But it seems that Stram is in need of being visited by a few spirits himself--to put the fear of good acting into him for this role. Scrooge's transformation should be portrayed as all-encompassing, from the inside out. Stram offers only a facile outline of a man in metamorphosis, one who is somehow managing to save his soul. I never felt the diffuse terror and disbelief of Scrooge when he's cowering on his own bed, unsure of his eternal fate. The scenes are played too light and amusing. In that sense, Scrooge's problems may be the responsibility of director Victoria Bussert.

The choreography is also on the weak, lackluster side. A few dances seem perfunctory or perhaps hastily created for the scenes from Christmas past. They are performed with some delight, but David Shimotakahara's dancemaking is on the whole uninteresting.

In contrast, the ghosts are finely portrayed, taking the heat off--and stealing the scenes away--from Scrooge. They also prevent adult audiences from sinking into a state of boredom, despite the sheer inevitability of the text. Walton Wilson, in particular, stands out as the spirit of Christmas present. He is a towering green giant aided by some kind of stilts. Wearing a mink stole and shimmering green gown with a huge brooch, the ghost looks like a drag queen's impersonation of Henry VIII. Wilson suitably plays the role for laughs and maintains the kitsch element of camp, enlivening an otherwise refined production.

And Stram rises up to his role as Scrooge at the end, when he opens an invisible window toward the audience and gulps the fresh air of a new life. He orders up the biggest goose in town as Christmas day commences with a fresh snowfall, carolers and a few townsmen scurrying down the streets, or rather the aisles of the Arts District Theater.

It is a fine ending for a lyrical production spiked with flights of fancy. Only the stingiest personality could leave the converted warehouse on Flora Street without some semblance of a holiday glow.

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