Present Joy

The conversion of Scrooge at the end of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol always delights, whether you're reading about it or seeing it on a stage. I remember Alistair Sim in the iconic 1951 movie, capering around the room in his nightgown, startling the maid on the stairs by insisting that she dance with him and then leaning out the window to call to the "intelligent," "delightful" and "remarkable" boy passing below that he's to buy a huge Christmas turkey from the nearby poulterer's and take it to Bob Cratchit's house.

Randy Moore has played the Denver Center's Scrooge for several years and has always done it well, but I don't remember a previous performance as purely joyous as the one he gives this year (he alternates in the role with Mike Hartman). Of course Moore's got the lines down pat by now, and he has his customary bits of business -- odd and engaging mewls and growls, the moment he falls off his chair in a paroxysm of laughter, the humorous inflection he gives to the word "Bob," repeated again and again while Scrooge is promising the impoverished clerk a raise. His Scrooge is pinch-mouthed and mean, though he's also an aging child, with a child's unconcern for decency and politeness, and also a child's vulnerability. But this year there's a genuinely different spirit abroad, and it lifts Moore's performance -- and the entire production -- to a whole new level. When the reformed Scrooge humbly asks the charitable couple he has turned away in the first scene if they'll come and see him, all the loneliness of his empty, money-grubbing days yawns beneath the words. When he takes a deep breath and says, "To be alive...," your own chest rises as you wait for the next words, which are -- as they simply have to be -- "it's glorious."

This has always been a strong production, with a beautifully evocative set by Robert Blackman: an intricate puzzle column of objects, books, boxes, tricks and toys that first entraps poor old Scrooge, then gradually vanishes, leaving an almost empty stage filled with light (Don Darmutzer is the lighting designer). Lee Hoiby's music is moving but unsentimental; music director Lee Stametz does well with it, and the singing is often sweet but never showy. The late Andrew V. Yelusich's costumes are pure fantasy, from the icy sparkle of the dress worn by the Ghost of Christmas Past's wife to the masks and top hats of the Victorian businessmen who sway and nod and sneer like a row of crows at the news of Scrooge's death. This is a visual and aural feast; the elements come together most strikingly during a singing tableau that shows groups of people celebrating the season -- the Cratchits, Scrooge's nephew Fred and his party guests, a coal-mining family -- and that's as bright and balanced as an Advent calendar.

Last year the scenes at the Cratchit household felt saccharine; this year they're touching. Mark Rubald and Gabriella Cavallero again play Bob and Mrs. Cratchit, but their interactions feel gentler and more real, and there's genuine tenderness in Rubald's scenes with Harry Feder Pruett, who plays Tiny Tim. Feder Pruett even manages to speak the overused line "God bless us, every one" with a quiet sincerity that makes it new. And Sarah Price is an interestingly intelligent Martha.

Once Tiny Tim has died, director Laird Williamson (who, with Dennis Powers, adapted the text) sets up a tableau, with the little boy laid out on a bier, mourned by bending figures in black: the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come and the formerly venal businessmen. I don't remember this from last year, and it brings an unexpected gravity to the scenes that follow.

Leslie O'Carroll's Mrs. Fezziwig is always a joy, and this year's Mr. Fezziwig, played by David Ivers, has a juicy energy that buoys and matches hers. Their ribald yet innocent antics bring down the house. Bill Christ is a strong, kindly Charles Dickens. The Toy Ballerina is a child role so sweet it can make your teeth ache, but Rachel Obering performs it with warmth and grace. And what a pleasure to see Old Marley, played by a sprightly Peter Bretz, relieved of his clanking chains at the end and sporting wings. In redeeming Scrooge, he has redeemed himself.

I'm not privy to the inner thoughts of this cast and crew, but I can guess at two reasons that this year's production has unusual depth. Artistic director Donovan Marley, who created this Christmas Carol, is leaving the Denver Center Theatre Company in the spring. No one knows if his recently announced replacement, Kent Thompson, will remount it for 2005, create another version, or choose not to stage a Christmas show at all. Or who among the actors, directors and designers he will retain. So this could be the last Denver hurrah for this particular mingling of talents.

In addition, Yelusich, longtime Denver Center set and costume designer, whose work, according to director Williamson in a program note, was always aimed at "making the play clearer, truer, more vibrant, more properly illuminated," died in October at the age of fifty. This production is dedicated to his memory.

Scrooge's story is a journey through death and into life, just as Christmas itself is an assertion -- primal and unstoppable, whether expressed with pagan rites or Victorian sugar-plums -- that even when all trace of green has vanished and the world is locked in ice as gray as Scrooge's mean old heart, life flickers at the core, and spring is bound to return.

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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

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