What the Dickens

"Marley was dead to begin with." Charles Dickens opened A Christmas Carol, his greatest ghost story and arguably the best secular Christmas tale ever written, with these strange, portentous words. In 150 years, the incredible success of the novella about old Scrooge and his ghostly redeemers continues to haunt the season, speaking to the widest possible audience and offering a delicious vision of an evil old man's rebirth. One can only hope that the Denver Center Theatre Company's charming yearly production of Dickens's classic might touch the jaded conscience of many a well-heeled patron, especially since this year's Scrooge is the marvelous Richard Risso.

Risso has a Lionel Barrymore quality (think of the nasty old Mr. Potter in Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life) that's terrific for the show. His deep, husky voice turns into a childish whine, gravel-laden and pathetic when Scrooge gets frightened. But when Scrooge is at his most brutish, that same voice can have a bell-like clarity capable of twisting a viewer's emotions like a screwdriver. We all know this man--he's real, and each of us has felt his icy fingers in our lives at some time or another. Even worse, some of us may have become as conscience-free and mean-spirited as the most famous miser in literary history.

Though Scrooge is often played as a cartoon, he was never meant to be, a crucial distinction that Risso obviously understands. His performance fully fleshes out the character so that we know why he is the way he is. But we also know that he has made bad choices and that those choices must be reversed.

Risso brings something to this role that is difficult to describe. He is funnier and fuzzier than his predecessors--less threatening than some, yet more insidiously ridiculous. And that edge of foolishness just under the surface is what makes Scrooge's redemption seem more likely. Encrusted as the man is in himself, there is something of the child left in him as well. When Scrooge learns to love again, he also learns to live. That's why the rest of us forgive him his trespasses against his victims. It's also why Scrooge ultimately does change, relieved that he has the opportunity to do so before it's too late.

And Risso makes us believe it. So all the gorgeous stagecraft, the exquisite original music, and the delightful performances by company members John Hutton (Fred), Mark Rubald (Bob Cratchit), Jacqueline Antaramian (Mrs. Cratchit) and Kathleen M. Brady (Mrs. Fezziwig) make a lovely, thoroughly integrated kind of sense. Yes, there's an excess of sentiment in this production--a twist or two too many of the heartstrings. But there is also a new persuasiveness about it--it's the best of the season's secular holiday offerings.

And a good thing, too, since the beautifully mounted road show Carousel at the Auditorium Theatre is problematic as holiday fare. Rodgers and Hammerstein made beautiful music together, but brother, is this piece dated.

It's all about a carnival barker who falls in love with a nice working-class girl and marries her. When he is fired by his mistress/boss, he can't find work, and he takes it out on the little woman. Billy is such a jackass that when he learns his wife is pregnant, he decides to provide for his child by becoming a killer for hire. He dies in the process but is given a chance by heaven to right the wrongs he has done and help his daughter, now fifteen and ready for trouble.

Several outstanding performances from the National Theatre of Great Britain's touring cast keep the audience entertained in spite of itself. Particularly notable are second leads Sherry D. Boone and Sean Palmer as Carrie and Enoch Snow. Patrick Wilson makes a charismatic Billy Bigelow, and Jennifer Laura Thompson brings a kittenish warmth to Julie. But the best voice in the show belongs to Rebecca Eichenberger as Julie's cousin Nettie Fowler.

What's troubling about this musical, especially as a holiday offering, are the assumptions made by playwright/lyricist Hammerstein that there's something noble or heroic about Julie's masochistic attitudes. Her "stand by your man even if he beats you" idiocy is pretty hard to stomach. If it's a tale of redemption you're seeking this year, better go with Risso's Dickens.

A Christmas Carol, through December 22 at the Denver Center Theatre Company, in the Plex at 14th and Curtis, 893-4100.

Carousel, through December 22 at the Auditorium Theatre, in the Plex at 14th and Curtis, 893-4100.

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