Everyone knows the story of Scrooge's conversion from hard-eyed businessman to philanthropist in A Christmas Carol. Tiny Tim's incantation, "God bless us, every one," has become a seasonal staple, right up there with twirling sugarplum fairies and twinkling-eyed Santas. But what if Dickens's well-loved story ran off the rails? What if the ghosts screwed up the plot line, Scrooge refused to repent and Tiny Tim's mother rejected her virtuous, long-suffering family, raged against her poverty and decided to get drunk and leap to her death from London Bridge?
That's the scenario envisioned by playwright Christopher Durang, whose Mrs. Bob Cratchit's Wild Christmas Binge is now playing at the Denver Victorian -- a warmly inviting old house with a theater nestled in its basement that might seem the perfect setting for a more nostalgic and traditional Christmas show.
As the play opens, we meet the Ghost of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come, all wrapped up in the jovial person of actress Linda Suttle. The Ghost does her best to follow the story line, but events keep wriggling out of her control. She and Scrooge are continually landing in the wrong scenes, or the right scenes but in the wrong sequence. When she tries to show the old miser a touching tableau about the meaning of Christmas, it morphs into a vignette of the O. Henry short story "Gift of the Magi," in which a wife sells her long hair to buy her husband a watch fob, only to find that he has sacrificed his watch in order to get her a comb. Scrooge finds this uninspiring. But he does perk up considerably when he glimpses the selfish, bad-tempered Gladys Cratchit, whom he recognizes instantly as a soulmate.
For a while the script seems a little aimless, if amusing. But the further the action veers from Dickens's story, the funnier it gets. Durang piles joke on joke, the improbable on top of the impossible. He hurls all kinds of things into the mix: the orphanage scene from Oliver Twist ("Please, sir, I want some more"); the Old Curiosity Shop's Little Nell, who enters into a pathos contest with Tiny Tim; the angel from It's a Wonderful Life and his counterpart from Touched by an Angel; bits of newspaper headlines; cultural references; names both famous and notorious; and jibes at English Christmas pudding and McDonald's Happy Meals.
I've always found the Cratchits irritating in serious productions. I mean, really, what are we to make of a kid who tells his father that he hoped people saw him in church because he's a cripple and "it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk and blind men see"? Oscar Wilde had it right when he said of another doomed Dickensian urchin that it would take "a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing." Apparently, the smarmy religiosity of the Cratchits got to Durang, too. His Tiny Tim loves the spotlight and is always thrusting his crippledom into other people's faces. That is, when they're not accidentally toppling him onto the floor.
The production at the Victorian is a lot of fun. On the night I saw the show, the pianist failed to show up. Kyle Hanson, the teenager who plays Young Ebenezer Scrooge, was forced to shuttle back and forth from the stage to the piano, where he provided lively and assured accompaniment. I think all this threw off the timing and made for a little raggedness, but the cast -- which includes Bill Selig as a muttering, expletive-spraying Scrooge, a funny and appealing Jake Mechling as Bob Cratchit, and Priscilla Young, whose Gladys Cratchit is lithe and jumpy as a cat -- still gave a spirited performance. It's hard to set exactly the right tone for Tiny Tim, and Durang originally suggested the role should be played by an adult, but sixth-grader Eric Tedesco does a terrific job with it.
Balance is everything, and I'm grateful to the Victorian for providing a little salt to offset the season's overabundance of sugar.
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