A Christmas Carol puts the happy in the holidays

The power of Charles Dickens's famous novella A Christmas Carol — and the reason it keeps getting resurrected in so many forms, Christmas after Christmas — stems from the depths of sorrow that underlie the joyously optimistic resolution. Ebenezer Scrooge lives in a London where poor people face the kind of bitter cold we've experienced around here lately in ragged clothes, with little food and no shelter; where families are sent to debtors' prisons when their fortunes slide; and where children work long, miserable hours — as Dickens himself did in a boot-blacking factory as a boy. In spirit, Scrooge himself is as wretched and impoverished as the beggars whose pleas for help he mocks. After supernatural intervention, he finds his place in the human community and begins the work of making that community happier and more compassionate. This deeper meaning is what makes us celebrate the kind of generous-hearted Christmas Dickens promoted here (and Christmas, as we know it, was pretty much a Victorian invention), and it's also the thing that makes us weep with pleasure when Scrooge reforms at the end.

The only on-stage Scrooge I've seen who fully communicated the untrammeled joy of that reform was Randy Moore, who used to play the role with the Denver Center Theatre Company. His babbling delight on seeing an ordinary chair and realizing he was, after all the horrors of his ghost-ridden night, still alive, and the chuckling, hand-rubbing, self-congratulation with which he sent a little boy out to buy a huge turkey for the Cratchits — these moments return to me with every holiday season.

A Christmas Carol: The Musical, currently at the Arvada Center, isn't about suffering, sin and redemption, however. It's a big rollicking musical with ear-pleasing songs, lots of cheerful dancing, stunning scenery and great costumes — and yet on its own level, it works. The Cratchits are pretty much window dressing. You can't really raise a tear for this Tiny Tim because he's so obviously healthy, and when he says, "God bless us, every one," he's echoed by a kid chorus in an inspirational song that builds to a conventional surging climax — not a bad song, but it takes away from the pathos of one small, sick kid whose heart is larger and more loving than those of any of the adults around him. The songs, by Alan Menken and Lynn Ahrens, who have created a lot of Disney scores, are tuneful but not exactly deep. And writers Ahrens and Mike Ockrent have done away with the scenes in which the Cratchits try to deal with their grief after Tiny Tim's death. Mrs. Cratchit responding when her son comments that Bob Cratchit is walking more slowly: "I have known him to walk with Tiny Tim upon his shoulder, very fast, indeed." And her husband describing a visit to his dead child's grave: "I wish you could have gone. It would have done you good to see how green a place it is."

What of that death's-head figure, Scrooge himself? He's not scary anymore. He doesn't even seem that mean. And when Jacob Marley arrives to warn of the dark emptiness Scrooge faces weighted down by links forged through his own greed, Marley is accompanied by a comic horror show of ghosts all singing a lively tune called "Link by Link."

Put aside reservations, however, and you're in for a warm, happy evening. The actors aren't given much in the way of characterization to work with, but they're all strong, and the voices are just plain terrific. Richard White's Scrooge may be a lot more robust throughout than Randy Moore's, and his conversion may carry far less of a charge, but he has a lot of on-stage authority, and when he cuts loose with that amazing baritone, who cares if the melody's not memorable? Stephen Day is jovial and welcoming as the Ghost of Christmas Present, and he, too, has a wonderful voice. Megan Van de Hey is delightfully daffy as The Ghost of Christmas Past, and with the aid of some nifty special effects, Kitty Skillman Hilsabeck becomes a sinisterly skimming Ghost of Christmas Future, a sort of flying Miss Havisham. Hilsabeck is also responsible for the choreography, which is loads of fun. So what this show lacks in soul, it makes up for in exuberant energy.

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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