The Dickens, You Say

Only the hardest of humbug hearts could resist the high-gloss charm of Dallas Theater Center's A Christmas Carol, now onstage at the Arts District Theater. It's a riotous, expensive-looking rendition of the Charles Dickens classic, crowded with pretty dancing wenches and adorable urchins wassailing around fir trees under garlands of twinkly lights.

The dark side of the story, the part about old fussbudget Ebenezer Scrooge (played by Michael Rudko) and his personal journey to soul-cleansing redemption, is handled with impressive special effects and dashes of slick stage magic right out of a David Copperfield show. How appropriate.

The visual tricks are breathtaking. Marley's Ghost (Akin Babatunde) slithers out of the middle of Scrooge's enormous four-poster bed. The Spirit of Christmas Past (adorable little Clara Peretz, whose diction is perfect) suddenly materializes from beneath a quilt crumpled on the floor. Spirit of Christmas Present (Liz Mikel) descends from the heavens in a lit-up green velvet hoop skirt big enough to park a car under.

And if that's not enough to keep the grown-ups awake, there's more than a soupçon of sex appeal in the handsome cast. Unlike the wizened movie Scrooges we're used to, Rudko's Ebenezer is on the young side, a trim middle-aged looker with nice eyes and a cute beard. Several of the men in the cast, done up in their snappy cutaway coats, resemble the hunky heroes on the covers of romance novels.

Costume designer Katherine B. Roth amps up the wattage by dressing the ladies in empire-waist frocks that are more Victoria's Secret than Victorian era. The frilly gowns in the Fezziwig Ball scene plunge so dramatically that during the do-si-dos, the heaving cleavage on display threatens to spill out over the footlights. What fun to find A Christmas Carol festooned with glitz and tits.

This A Christmas Carol, adapted by Preston Lane and Jonathan Moscone, is so blatantly commercial it actually starts with one. Before the red curtains pull back, a chorus steps onstage to harmonize a tribute to the production's pair of sponsors, a cell phone company and a paper products manufacturer.

Get past the ads, however, and there's more to this Carol than tinsel and hokum. There's a decidedly modern, humanist tone to the script. Scrooge's encounters with the three ghosts play out as regression therapy to unlock the reasons why the mean miser loves money and loathes Christmas. When he finally reaches his psychological breakthrough, the message isn't simply about receiving the joy of Christmas, but about rejecting industrial exploitation of the working class and denouncing the evils of corporate greed run wild. Can't get more relevant than that.

In staging the show, director Jenny Lord and designers Narelle Sissons and Marcus Doshi have been heavily influenced by the work of Julie Taymor, the Tony-winning director/designer of The Lion King. Up pops a huge yellow full moon on the back wall, a visual twin to Lion King's rising and setting sun. Shadow puppets skitter by behind a scrim. A giant marionette looms over the stage as the silent Spirit of Christmas Future.

With silvery snowflakes floating down, thunderbolts crashing, thick tendrils of fog creeping over the edge of the proscenium and the face of a Big Ben clock chiming the passage of hours in Scrooge's life-changing Christmas Eve night, nearly every moment of A Christmas Carol is layered with atmosphere. Sure, the swordfight between the storybook Ali Baba (Ric Leal) and a gigantic snowman in one of Scrooge's dream sequences is a bit of Ice Capades kitsch. But later comes a gorgeous graveyard scene that pays homage to images from Magritte, so all is forgiven.

Kim D. Sherman's musical score, a rousing collection of traditional English holiday songs arranged into tuneful medleys, serves to smooth transitions between the many lavish scene changes.

Among the standout performers in the large cast is Elizabeth Rothan in a number of roles, including Mrs. Cratchit. She gives each of her characters a different comedic tic, and they're all delightful. Ric Leal is good as the swashbuckling Ali Baba and graceful as Scrooge's sympathetic nephew, Fred. Most Tiny Tims are so cloyingly cute they make our molars hurt, but tiny Sean Woodruff is just right in that role and as the childhood version of Scrooge himself. Bob Hess makes a fine Bob Cratchit.

Part of the fun of A Christmas Carol is watching the children in the audience react to it. During the preview performance I reviewed, one of the youngest ticket holders just couldn't contain himself after the scene where snowmen fly down from the ceiling.

"I wike this!" the tyke said in a clear, strong voice that carried to the back row.

Me, too, kid.

The overheard dialogue during opening night of A Trailer Trash Christmas Carol, now playing in the late-night slot on weekends at the Pocket Sandwich Theatre, came not from the audience but from the waitstaff working in this joint. Do they even know there's a show going on? Do they care?

As the actors on the tiny stage struggled to keep their composure, waitrons huddled a few feet away, carrying on loud, expletive-filled arguments and slinging nachos on tables like they were doing a shift in a truck stop. Several times actors' lines were drowned out completely by the noisy rattling of kitchen workers refilling the ice machine. Waiters crossed back and forth in front of the stage throughout the 90-minute show, never pretending to duck out of the sightlines.

One can only hope the dingy, greasy-spoon atmosphere of this venue adds to the ambience of this show, a lowest-of-lowbrows adaptation of the Dickens tale. This one is set in a rundown mobile home collective in Beaver, Arkansas, where two families carry on a feud during the holidays. Redneck Junior Beauregard (Joel Black) has accidentally (he claims) shot the neighbors' dog, Tiny Tiny (portrayed by a rather cute stuffed animal that barks Jingle Bells).

Unrepentant, Junior wishes for a pump-action shotgun for Christmas and complains that all he ever gets under the tree are boxes of underwear and cans of Slim Jims. Passed out in a drunken stupor on Christmas Eve, Junior is visited by a pigtailed sprite (Meridith Morton) who introduces him to the three ghosts who'll teach him the error of his ways.

That's it for plot in this hee-hawing human cartoon (written by Erik and Jamie Baker Knapp). No point trashing a show that already has "trash" in its title. It doesn't pretend to be anything but just dumb entertainment, and it achieves that with jokes about "lesbaterians" and lines like "drunk and stupid only gets you one thing in this life--the presidency."

The humor is about as subtle as a whiffle bat to the 'nads, and some of it is downright gross. The less said about the man wearing the adult diaper on the outside of his pants, the better.

Most of the cast would probably prefer to remain anonymous, but Miss Morton is as cute as a Christmas cookie. When she's onstage, even the waiters pay attention.