BWW Review: Scrooges Galore: Two Distinct Takes on A CHRISTMAS CAROL at Chesapeake Shakespeare and Toby's

It is a truth universally acknowledged that as Christmas rolls around, at theaters across the country, and probably around the world, A Christmas Carol appears. And it's no wonder; Charles Dickens' irresistible holiday tale is irresistibly theatrical. It is machine-tooled to go right for the heartstrings, and, though it contains a wealth of details and characters (too many for any staging to include), it has a clearly-defined core that can be enacted in six "acts": 1) Scrooge before his transformation, 2) Marley's ghost, 3-5) the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and To Come, and 6) Scrooge transformed. Into this sturdy framework, Dickens has packed so much: the idealization of Christmas as a season of both festivity and beneficence, an appeal for society to look out for its vulnerable children, a tale of individual redemption, and of course a rousing and occasionally spine-tingling ghost story.

A lot of different things can be done within this framework, a versatility well-illustrated by two distinct takes on A Christmas Carol currently on offer at the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company in Baltimore at Toby's Dinner Theatre in Columbia. Both of these productions have been offered multiple times before but each was new to me.

Chesapeake Shakespeare's version, adapted from Dickens by Founding Artistic Director Ian Gallanar, sets the tale in 19th Century Baltimore, which is not that much of a change, given the similarities between Victorian Baltimore and Victorian London. The CSC's still-new home sits right in the middle of the district where a Baltimorean Scrooge & Marley would have set up its counting house in that era, and actually occupies what had been a bank from that era, so it is no surprise that the firm's street address (calibrated by the 19th-Century name of the cross-street) would yield the same location. It fits, architecturally and spiritually. When Scrooge, the miser at the heart of the story (Gregory Burgess, pictured above on the right) is solicited to contribute to charity, the solicitors are two historic Baltimore characters, architect Robert Cary Long and mayor George William Brown. There may be a slight overdoing the local geography, but resituating the story in Baltimore does it no harm.

The great strength of this version is its fidelity to Dickens' sentimental appeal. Gallanar's script and Burgess' performance capture the distance Scrooge must travel from the emotionally-damaged and self-protective miser, hiding behind half-baked Malthusian and social Darwinian notions to justify his dysfunctionality, to the engaged and self-aware person he becomes thanks to the journeys on which the Ghosts take him. From the outset we are rooting for Scrooge to overcome his evil demons and join the happy, sane world just outside his door - and this Scrooge puts up a heck of a fight. He hollers, he cowers beneath the bedclothes, he rails at the dawning awareness of his role in and his responsibility for the Cratchit family's problems. We know, in advance, that he will lose - we are cheering for him to lose - but Gallanar's version relies on Dickens' sturdy plotting and Dickens' awareness of just how to squeeze the tear ducts to take us, completely engaged, through that process. (Is there any line in literature more designed to choke you up than "Tiny Tim, who did not die ..."? I doubt it.)

The 1994 musical version at Toby's (book by Mike Ockrent and Lynn Ahrens, songs by Ahrens and Alan Menken) began life as a product of Radio City Entertainment, running for 10 holiday seasons at the Paramount Theatre at Madison Square Garden, with what was reportedly the largest theatrical set ever employed in New York. Obviously it is going to add some elements to the original story, since the character-driven Dickens tale does not feature big song-and-dance opportunities or suggest the need for such a huge set. So be prepared for a Scrooge (David Bosley-Reynolds, pictured above on the left) surrounded by a troupe of leggy chorines, and a Scrooge tormented by a host of what looks like Christmas zombies. You'll cry a lot less than you would at CSC, but you'll probably ooh and aah a lot more. Toby's has always excelled at cramming big-time production values into its decent-sized but not huge theater in the round, and this show is no exception. If chorines and zombies are your thing, this is the show for you.

Maybe not for everyone, though. Something's gained with all the hoopla, but much is lost. Sometimes lost in almost the literal sense. It was commented to me by more than one spectator that at the outset, in Jolly Good Time, a set piece street scene introducing many of the characters, there is such a large ensemble and so much motion and so many words being tossed around (in Toby's long-remarked difficult acoustic environment) that we missed out on who was who, or which characters mattered. (The obvious comparison would be the Tradition song at the beginning of Fiddler on the Roof, where every character in the village is carefully introduced.) This is a challenge to some degree in both productions, because so much doubling is required. In the CSC version, the older version of Belle, young Scrooge's fiancée, is portrayed by the same actress, Tamieka Chavis, who had a few moments earlier portrayed the younger version's mother. Talk about confusing! But the problem is more of a challenge at Toby's.

Again, that issue may not matter so much if you've come to Toby's for the spectacle and the song-and-dance. Menken and Ahrens' songs are delightful (if not up to the quality of Menken's work with Howard Ashman), the choreography by Laurie Newton is terrific, and most of the audience will know the basic story anyhow and may even have had their fill of the basic Dickens storyline. Not to mention the fun of seeing a host of the Toby's regulars back, including Tina DeSimone, Coby Kay Callahan, Heather Beck, Jeffrey Shankle, CrystAl Freeman , and MaryKate Brouillet. (Lawrence B. Munsey, listed in the program, was apparently on the disabled list.)

On the other hand, if you're looking for the story told nearly straight, the CSC adaptation is the one you want. And, like every CSC production, it also has musical elements, incorporating a dozen holiday songs into the action of the show, and even more in the pre-show and intermission times. So you won't miss out on the Christmas Carol caroling entirely.

Either way, 'tis the season for this show, in either of these very distinct presentations. No need to choose: see 'em both!

A Christmas Carol, adapted by Ian Gallanar, directed by Scott Alan Small, through December 23, at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, 7 South Calvert Street, Baltimore, MD 21202. Tickets $19-$65. 410-244-8570, http://www.chesapeakeshakespeare.com/tickets/box-office/. Some material may be too intense for small children.

A Christmas Carol: The Musical, book by Mike Okrent & Lynn Ahrens, music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, directed by David James, through January 8, at Tobys Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia, MD 21044. Tickets $43.50-$62, 410-730-8311, or at www.Ticketmaster.com. Some material may be too intense for small children.

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From This Author Jack L. B. Gohn

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