Curtains: Actors Theatre's 18th A Christmas Carol

For 18 years, my own holiday traditions with respect to Actors Theatre's well-regarded annual production of A Christmas Carol are that I have assiduously avoided giving the company the opportunity to decide whether to cast me (because if I perform that hard around Christmas, I always get rip-roaringly ill); a grip of my personal actor friends are always in it; and I've figured I'd get around to seeing it one of these days. That day has arrived.

This script is a brisk, light-hearted adaptation that's very suitable for children and families -- in fact, AT brings in busloads of kids to see it and, like virtually every other company whose shows I've attended this year, asks for donations (in this case, to support those student matinees of A Christmas Carol) in their curtain speech. It's awfully tempting, because you know exactly what the money's for, so pack your wallet lightly if you don't want to be a big tax-deductible supporter of wonderful, values-building arts experiences for the young people who will be in charge of taking care of you in a few decades.

Alan Ruch's music and lyrics for this show are, for the most part, appropriate and pleasant, and the numbers are neither overly long nor annoyingly numerous. (I consider the opening a Bad New Song -- and my punishment for that judgment was to hear it reprised twice -- but I give it props for accompanying an intercut scene of Marley's death and burial, which is a novel and meaningful way to start and foreshadow the story.)

I particularly liked a song that I'll call "When I Close My Eyes" (the titles aren't listed in the program), a sweet expansion of a passage during the visit of the Ghost of Christmas Present that is included so rarely in live productions, I was compelled to look in Dickens' original story, just to see that it was there.

Meanwhile, playwrights Michael Grady and Matthew Wiener have omitted the endless, sad, weird scene from the Future in which scavengers sell the contents of dead Scrooge's bedchamber to a pawnbroker -- I enjoy reading it, but it hasn't nearly the impact onstage, so I'm glad enough to see it gone -- and we arrive at Scrooge's awakening and reform without an intermission. The costumes (by Susan Johnson-Hood) are lovely and evocative, the actors' and narrators' diction is crisp and well-informed, and the performances are fun and outstanding all around. Kudos to Actors Theatre for keeping Christmas well, "if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us!"

A Christmas Carol wraps up Thursday afternoon, December 24, at Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe, with four performances squeezed in between now and then to take advantage of school breaks and visits from loved ones. All remaining tickets have been reduced to $25 or $35; order them here or call 602-252-8497.

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