As a Christmas message, this one is sort of "open vein, insert tinsel." But it is the lesson taught in Charles Dickens' timeless ghost story, A Christmas Carol, now getting its annual year-end outing on the main stage at Dallas Theater Center. Lead a generous, loving life, says Dickens, and the chain you forge forms a slender golden tether to heaven. But be a misanthropic old grouch like Carol's main character Ebenezer Scrooge and you'll be welded to an anchor of everlasting misery.
Jacob Marley, Scrooge's longtime business partner, learned what really matters only after lugging his heavy chains into the afterlife. Seven years since shaking off his mortal coil on a Christmas Eve, he returns to haunt his old pal Scrooge, pulling behind him the thick, symbolic links of his many transgressions. In the first of four visions that will awaken Scrooge before Christmas dawns, Marley, in an extravagantly well-voiced return performance by actor Dean Nolen, warns his friend that unless he changes his outlook on life, he, too, soon will be clink-clanking as a restless spirit.
How Scrooge begins to see the error of his ways and decides to alter his destiny is the beauty of this tale and of DTC's production, the biggest and most popular show at this theater this year and any year. Using the same musical adaptation written by Richard Hellesen, scored by David de Berry and directed by Joel Ferrell that it staged in 2005, DTC explores the deeper existential and spiritual qualities of A Christmas Carol without losing any of the heartwarming spark or spectacle. This is a show with everything: musical numbers to keep the kids amused, and for grown-up theatergoers, richly textured performances by a first-rate ensemble that employs more professional Dallas actors than DTC usually hires in an entire season.
Some smart casting changes freshen things up considerably this time around. This year's star is English actor Robert Langdon Lloyd, a veteran of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Lloyd bears a strong resemblance to the actor Sir Ian Holm, who played Bilbo Baggins in the Lord of the Rings movies, and creates a small but tightly wound Scrooge. Unlike the younger, lankier versions in years past, this older Ebenezer really does act like a man whose life force is ebbing away. He openly disparages Christmas, crippled children, the poor who beg on his doorstep and his only living relatives, who mock him unmercifully at their holiday parties. There's only one thing this scowling geezer appreciates. "Darkness is cheap," says one of the narrators. "Scrooge liked it."
Darkness abounds in DTC's Victorian-era Carol. Out of spooky shadows emerges Marley, his face as greenish-gray as a horror-movie zombie. As an eerie fog roils over the stage, ragged street urchins waft on from the wings to sing snatches of traditional English carols in minor keys. The play unfolds with a combination of multi-voice story-theater narration by various cast members and dialogue exchanged between Scrooge and his nervous clerk, Bob Cratchit (Chamblee Ferguson), and Scrooge and his spectral visitors.
Ooh, those ghosts really do a number on the old fellow. After Marley's drop-in comes the puckish Ghost of Christmas Past, played by Dallas actor Ashley Wood. He introduces a flashback to Scrooge in his lonely boarding school days and reminds him of the heartbreak he suffered as a young man when his fiancée (Lynn Blackburn) realized her future mate loved shillings and pounds more than he loved her.
Next up is the stern and accusatory Ghost of Christmas Present, played by M. Denise Lee, the much-adored Dallas chanteuse last seen at DTC in Crowns. Doubling in the role of Mrs. Fezziwig, Lee brings her velvet alto to the "Wassail Song" and then shakes the timbers with her booming recriminations of Scrooge as she parades before him the sad-eyed children named "Ignorance" and "Want" (Lorenzo Salazar, Harini Suresh).
Performed in two one-hour acts, this production is lavish with the action. The revolving stage in the Kalita Humphreys Theater appears to spin twice as fast as it ever has, with Scrooge's tall four-poster bed twirling at dizzying speed on top of it. The elaborate set designed by Bob Lavallee is a marvel of movement and quick changes, all elements working to enhance the storytelling without becoming distracting. Lighting by Matthew Richards paints scenes in muted chiaroscuro, gradually bathing the stage in warm amber as the sun rises on Scrooge's new life and he vows to "honor Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year."
Despite its old-fashioned look and its loyalty to Dickens' words, DTC's Christmas Carol does have its contemporary touches. The color-blind casting gives an especially modern profile to the Cratchit family. The parents are white, as is Tiny Tim, sweetly portrayed by 5-year-old Anderson Elementary kindergartner William Junkin. But the other Cratchit offspring—played by Salazar, Farrah West, Ian Flanagan and Emily Wagman—are as ethnically diverse as the Jolie-Pitt clan. This is a Carol of many colors.
One of the highlights of Theatre Britain's lineup each year is its Christmas "panto," a children's fairy tale told in a traditional British style that switches up the genders among roles. For Cinderella, now onstage at the Trinity River Arts Center, director Sue Birch, founder of this company, puts dresses—really big, crazy dresses dripping with pompons—on actors Brian Witkowicz and Malcolm Beaty as ugly stepsisters "Entsheawful" and "Enchilada." Actress Raye Bonham takes on the dual "breeches" roles of Prince Charming and his alter ego, "Buttons."
The result is a loose, un-bawdy, very kid-giggly interpretation of the old story, re-imagined here in panto style by playwright Jackie Mellor, who works in some goofy references to Ross Dress for Less and Google. As required, a panto incorporates audience sing-alongs, some glow-in-the-dark puppetry (used for the ball gown-sewing scene) and the appearance of a remarkably un-scary ghost. This Cinderella also introduces a court jester named Silly Billie (Allison McCorkle) who explains all to the crowd beforehand.
Might not be wise to teach kids to yak back to actors at other live theater productions, but for a panto it's part of the fun. The audience is urged to boo every entrance of Cinderella's snooty stepmonster, Baroness Likely (Michele Rene), and to warn the jester whenever that sheet-draped ghost sneaks onstage behind her.
Among the cast, the stepsisses in drag steal every scene, as you might expect, particularly Witkowicz, wobbling under a wig that resembles a 2-foot-high cone of tomato aspic (great costumes by Robin Armstrong and hair and makeup by Steven-Shayle Rhodes). Cinderella, as played by the diminutive Laura Stephenson, is a pretty, wispy thing but often barely visible behind the boys' voluminous hoop skirts. She makes a grand transformation, however, in the black-lit ball-gown scene that earns well-deserved "oohs" and "aahs" from the kiddos.
Nancy Lamb, a newcomer to Theatre Britain, gives her Fairy Godmother character an authentic-sounding Scottish burr. Kit Givens and John Moss are good as super-sized mice and royal courtiers.
The only clunker in the cast is Steve Freedman as Prince Charming's father, King Leopold. Where quick comic timing is called for, Freedman falters on the British phrasings. He's the only bland blip in an otherwise delightful bit of family entertainment.