It doesn't matter how much it's quoted, kitschified, read at Christmas gatherings or adapted for stage and screen, Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol manages to preserve its benevolent power. I like to think that's because something in us responds to the idea of simple kindness replacing coldness in one businessman's stony heart and, ultimately, spreading throughout the world and solving all of the problems of hunger, disease and poverty. However, I always wonder how many of those who have seen the Denver Center's charming production will continue to walk uncaring past beggars on the street. Or if any grasping man of business -- the CEO of the average HMO, for example, or a top decision-maker at Wal-Mart -- has ever altered his conduct one iota because he's read or heard Jacob Marley's lament for his wasted, money-grubbing life: "Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance and benevolence were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business."
Never mind. On the Denver Center stage, the story of Scrooge and his conversion by the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future remains vibrant. And while there are a few creaky moments, the production on the whole remains a stunner -- even in this, its thirteenth year.
Part of the pleasure of a return visit is recognizing some of the company's strongest and most interesting actors in small roles, or roles very different from those they have played before. As a woman collecting money for charity, Jacqueline Antaramian creates a distinct and appealing portrait of a certain kind of prissily gentle do-gooder. Keith Hatten adds sly humor to the party scene at the home of Scrooge's nephew, Fred, playing the slightly thick-witted but irrepressible Topper. Carol Halstead is fine as Fred's wife, Mary, but she's bring-the-house-down funny, inventive and uninhibited as the unspeakable Mrs. Filcher, stripping a corpse of his jewelry and effects so she can sell them for a few pence, sliding about the stage and shrilling with ugly laughter. Shannon Koob is empathetic as Martha, Bob Cratchit's eldest daughter. Kathleen M. Brady brings great warmth and stature to the Ghost of Christmas Present, though the lady turns appropriately nasty when she reveals to Scrooge the underside of the joyous season: two filthy, desperate children, clinging to her robe. They represent Want and Ignorance, she tells him. "Have they no refuge or resource?" falters poor Scrooge, and Brady stretches out her neck and hisses: "Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?" -- these being the words with which Scrooge rebuffed the couple collecting for charity.
A Christmas Carol
Stage Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 14th and Curtis streets
Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through December 28, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org
Among the children, Jake Brasch as the boy on the street displays a refreshing sense of irony. Leslie O'Carroll was the dearest little twinkling dumpling of a Mrs. Fezziwig last year, and she graces the role again this year, perhaps even more enchantingly, accompanied by an irresistibly prancing Mark Rubald as Mr. Fezziwig.
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The plot is familiar, as two stories intersect in A Christmas Carol: Scrooge's spiritual journey from death to life, and the saga of the poor but virtuous and merry-hearted Cratchits. The first is obviously the more compelling; the second is only an exemplary tale, bogged down in Victorian sentimentality. Mark Rubald struggles manfully as Bob Cratchit, but the family scenes are tedious. Oscar Wilde is supposed to have remarked of The Old Curiosity Shop, "One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing," and I'm afraid that's also true of the death of Tiny Tim.
Fortunately, Scrooge's odyssey retains its appeal, and Randy Moore gives a fine accounting of the role; he makes Scrooge silly and funny for the children but provides humor, intelligence and soul for the grownups. He communicates the joy of Scrooge's conversion so wholeheartedly that you spend the last several minutes of the performance giddily grinning and walk out onto the street still smiling.
This is a visually sumptuous production. Robert Blackman's set is elegant and evocative. Wearing Andrew V. Yelusich's costumes, cast members cluster into tableaux reminiscent of Victorian Christmas cards. This year, more than last, I noticed how much the songs and music of Lee Hoiby deepened the action. They're lyrical and lovely and quintessentially Christmasy, without sounding hackneyed.
I think director Laird Williamson might want to revisit the Cratchit scenes next year. It also seems to me that the moment when Scrooge is confronted with Want and Ignorance would be more shocking if the two children were silent and still; their stumbling movements and plaintive sounds detract from rather than add to the horror. Still, I left the theater feeling that the Christmas season had decidedly -- and most delightfully -- begun.