A Christmas Carol Glows

There's a power to Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol that defies analysis. On one level, it's a sentimental fable, a codification of the tamed bourgeois, Victorian Christmas that replaced the dangerous excesses of earlier generations, when drunken laborers took to the streets to sing, challenge the rich and turn propriety on its head. The story attacks over-weening capitalist greed, but it also suggests that the harm done can be nullified with a little goodwill on the part of the rich and through a more altruistic way of doing business. Both progressive liberals and apologists for unfettered free enterprise have found justification for their beliefs in A Christmas Carol.

But this is a work of art, not a political analysis, and it also speaks to us on a far deeper level. Dickens, who as a child endured some of the worst deprivations Victorian society had to offer, never shied away from portraying the dark side of industrialization. He personifies it in the figures of two children huddled beneath the robe of the otherwise jovial Ghost of Christmas Present. The children, representing ignorance and want, are: "Yellow, meager, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shriveled hand, like that of age, had pinched and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked; and glared out menacingly..."

As the Ghost of Christmas Present raised his hand and pronounced the word "doom" on the Denver Center stage, I found it impossible not to think of the suffering millions around the world -- in Afghanistan, Somalia, Argentina, Haiti, the occupied West Bank and even segments of our own country, and of the rage building in those places.

Then there's the way A Christmas Carol speaks to our hearts. Although Scrooge's conversion is now a part of pop culture -- we've seen it in cartoons, musicals, television specials and films set in modern times -- it still maintains its gut-level appeal and its dreamlike fascination. A closed, angry, mean-spirited man is visited by phantoms and converted to goodness, and there's so much joy in watching the process.

It's hard for me to imagine a better production than the one mounted by the Denver Center. With its inventive staging, moments of humor and adorable but disciplined child actors, it works brilliantly as a children's show. There are evocative and un-hackneyed songs by Lee Hoiby that invite "the whole world to come inside." There are Andrew V. Yelusich's glittering costumes, which make the characters sparkle like figurines on a music box. And Robert Blackman's set, an odd, mechanical-looking contraption in which nursery toys are first frozen and then begin to move as Scrooge's heart thaws, is both adaptable and visually stunning. Okay, I would have liked to see Scrooge flying on wires instead of staggering around faking flight, but overall, the staging is fine and imaginative, and there's a particularly lovely skating scene.

Director Laird Williamson and Dennis Powers, who helped adapt the text, approached their task with intelligence. They haven't shied away from the story's gloomier moments, such as the scene around Scrooge's putative deathbed, when a couple of wretched old hags and a pawnbroker wrangle over his belongings. There's also a wonderful sequence in which five grotesquely masked businessmen gloat over his demise. But Williamson and Powers have also given full weight to the charm and sentiment of this enduring work.

There are dozens of actors in this production; between them, they add countless small pleasures and interesting bits of business to the evening, while still working together seamlessly as an ensemble. Randy Moore is a wonderful Scrooge, and his wholehearted conversion at the end, which still retained a hint of contemplativeness, dampened my eyes.

Find a child and go see this.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman