Rug rats' guide to Christmas theater

What, the Dickens again at the Dallas Theater Center?
You bet your suet pudding. This is DTC's 12th annual production of Dickens' A Christmas Carol, and practice, as they say, makes perfect. With enough dazzling visual effects to satisfy the Andrew Lloyd Webber whizbang crowd, and with an emotional punch potent enough to make manly men blubber, this Christmas Carol is the big, bright present under the tree of Dallas' theatrical season.

Director Jonathan Moscone has spent three seasons on the pine as DTC's "artistic associate," studying game film, holding the clipboard, and basically grooming himself for bigger things. The Yale School of Drama graduate shows his mettle here, mastering both the technical challenges of a big show while injecting some new life into a classic that familiarity can easily make stale.

The adaptation by Gerald Freedman posits that a proper, though stylish, Victorian mother is reading A Christmas Carol to her husband and kids on Christmas Eve. The story literally comes to life on stage, with the mother reappearing periodically to provide both the play-by-play and the color commentary. This device, which might have been distracting, is made effective by Liz Piazza Kelly, who plays the mother with vivacious energy and charm. An actress who seems poised for the big time, Kelly makes an attractive and dynamic ringmaster.

And there's a lot going on in the ring. The Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future make increasingly dramatic entrances, fog embroils the stage, scenes change in a whirl, lasers flicker, and Lucas-like sound assaults the eardrums. It's a pity that set designer John Ezell, lighting designer Robert Wierzel, and sound designer Tom Mardikes can't take a curtain call, because their effects draw as much spontaneous applause as the actors. (A note to parents: the spooks and specters in this show dissolved a couple of toddlers in the audience, who had to be ushered from the theater. Kids four and under should probably be left with the baby sitter).

While whatever money was invested in this show (and it had to be a fairly large pile of rupees) definitely shows up on stage, this Christmas Carol is more than empty spectacle. The acting and directorial emphasis help recapture the story's message of lost chances and possible redemption. Despite the special effects and the rather cavernous confines of the downtown Arts District Theater, this show achieves a touching intimacy.

It starts with guest actor Charles Dean as Scrooge. A mean-spirited, Gingrich-like Republican of sorts, he notes that "it's enough for a man to care for his own business." As for those who would make special provisions for the poor, Scrooge dispassionately observes that there are prisons and poorhouses for losers who've bungled their business affairs.

It's in the peeling away of this unfeeling veneer that Dean excels. As scrooge is shown his past blunders and his progressive alienation from his own best feelings, you can't help but ponder how you've screwed up your own life. You also can't help but be bucked up by the denouement when Scrooge realizes that there's still time left for change. You leave the theater resolved to put a little more warmth in your heart, at least until you get back on the freeway and become the same old jerk you always were.

Talented Dallas actor Ted Davey also is good as the Ghost of Christmas Past. Davey hits the stage dressed like Elton John in his glitter period and brings his characteristic energy and flair to the part. Akin Babatunde, familiar to kids and parents as a regular on PBS' "Wishbone," is flamboyant as the Ghost of Christmas Present. Raphael Parry is sympathetic as Bob Cratchit, that personification of the cringing wage slave in all of us.

The entire cast plays with enthusiasm and pleasure, clearly enjoying that rarity in Dallas--a big, receptive audience. Meanwhile, DTC artistic director Richard Hamburger and managing director Robert Yesselman stand by beaming like people who have bought a friend a really nice Christmas present and are watching it being unwrapped.

Whatever you may think about Dickens, there would be no "Christmas season" as we know it without his stories shaping our perceptions--particularly A Christmas Carol. It's an indispensable tale, and this is an indispensable production of it.

If you're looking for a holiday treat for the six-and-under set, the Dallas Children's Theater is generally a safe wager. Along with DTC, the DCT may have the strongest reputation nationally of any Dallas theater.

The reason is that DCT executive director Robyn Flatt marshals the resources and energy necessary to put professional actors and sets on stage.

The Christmas Witch is an example. This premiere of a play adapted from Steven Kellogg's children's story features a large cast, impressive sets, colorful costumes, engaging actors, and the ample space provided by the El Centro College Theater. It's the only original Christmas play on view in the Dallas-Fort Worth area this season.

The story, a rather thin and contrived one, unfortunately, involves an apprentice witch named Gloria (Sara Rankin). Though enrolled at the Academy of Young Witches and Goblins, she's not enamored of the curriculum, nor of the provender (cream of cockroach casserole). She would rather hang with an angel (Renee Micheal, transitioning nicely from the vamp she played in Jubilee Theater's Black Orpheus.) There's an initiation rite to be passed, however, before Gloria can join the good guys, and that is that she must do something constructive in the Christmas spirit.

What she does is patch up a feud between two factions of people on a distant planet who are preciously named the Pepperwills and the Valdoons. In the process she also reforms the young witches and goblins of the Academy.

While the story hardly has the mythic power of the best children's tales, such as The Hobbit and The Wind in the Willows, the play is carried along by jaunty songs composed by Amanda McBroom and Gordon Hunt, by the costumes, sets, and energetic performances, and by the flying. The latter effect is brought to the DCT stage by the renowned Foy Brothers, who flew Mary Martin in the Broadway production of Peter Pan.

The small fry packing the audience were at the edge of their seats, and parents in attendance were pleased to see their kids soaking up the excitement and fun of live drama. While The Christmas Witch won't have anyone forgetting Rudolph, Frosty, the Grinch or other Christmastime characters, it's still spectacle enough to please even today's jaded rug rats.

A Christmas Carol runs through December 24 at the Arts District Theater. Call 522-TIXX.

The Christmas Witch runs through December 20 at the El Centro College Theater. Call 978-0110.

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P.b. Miller