Scrooged Again

It's been a very long time since I've reviewed Actors Theatre's annual production of A Christmas Carol. I see it every year, but I haven't troubled anyone outside of my home with an opinion about it for quite a while.

I must have written something when, a half-dozen years or so ago, the company's producing artistic director Matthew Wiener and local actor/playwright Michael Grady overhauled the show, adding music and loads of special effects and making it frankly a heck of a lot more fun to watch. The original production was drab, lacking the spark provided by Michael Barnard's choreography and the spunk of Alan Ruch's music and lyrics in the current version. But I don't remember what I wrote about these changes back then; I hope it was "thank you."

This isn't a perfect show, certainly. Pretty much all of the ballads, except the wonderful "Travels," grind the show to a halt. The appearance of a standard Christmas tune, "What Child Is This?", in the midst of Ruch's original score, is perplexing. And, as usual, every single one of Barnard's musical numbers is played directly out front and often ends with big smiles and outstretched arms (somebody buy this guy a Twyla Tharp video -- please!). And, with all those song-and-dance numbers and no intermission, this is one lengthy show. As the princess-gowned tot in front of us hollered, "Boy, this is long!"

But this not-so-new but very much improved A Christmas Carol is still your best holiday bet, particularly when one considers how often theater companies update or spoof the original story. Wiener and Grady's script isn't a straight retelling, but it doesn't play like an homage to the original, either. True, it's full of hyper-cheesy musical numbers and shiny holiday cheer -- things that were in desperately short supply in 19th-century London, to be sure. But it's also chock-full of smart humor and gorgeously lighted tableaux and a whole lot of Dickensian dialogue lifted straight out of the novel, much of it wedged into Ruch's wonderful songs.

Towering above the star turns too numerous to mention is Kim Bennett, who replaced Gerald Burgess as miserly Scrooge a few years back.

Bennett's transformation from Grinch to Santa is not only wonderful to witness, but believable, besides. That's because while most actors play Scrooge as a one-dimensional fussbudget who morphs into one happy fella, Bennett gives him some depth from the get-go. His Scrooge is seen grinning a little here and there, not just glowering and sneering; he's heard making wisecracks and self-deprecating asides long before his miraculous makeover by a bunch of dead guys. Besides, Bennett's a hell of an actor, and it's fun to watch him having a blast moving through this rangy role.

For people who care more about flash and fun than thespian talent, there are plenty of flying beds and smoke machines and the like in this Christmas Carol. Dickens fans or anybody looking for a fast fix of holiday cheer won't be disappointed, either.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela