Scrooge better at cheer than fear John Astin's Ebenezer is master of glee, but short on grumpiness in Mechanic's 'A Christmas Carol.'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

You can tell it's Christmas time because: 1) Fat guys in red suits are panhandling; 2) Even snow-phobic Baltimoreans are praying for flakes on a certain day; and 3) There are more productions of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" than Santa has elves.

The biggest, glossiest "Christmas Carol" in town is the one at the Mechanic Theatre this week. It also boasts a star -- Baltimore native John Astin, of "The Addams Family" fame -- in the lead role of Ebenezer Scrooge.

But first the gloss, then the star. Thanks to two-time Tony Award-winner Desmond Heeley's sets and costumes, this "Christmas Carol" looks as pretty as a Currier & Ives Christmas card, and, when the script calls for it, as spooky as Dickens can be.

The proscenium arch and drop curtain are decorated with a cityscape shrouded in glittering blue-white ice and snow. And the ghosts who show Scrooge the error of his ways wear Heeley's niftiest garb -- Christmas Past is an ancient king with a flowing white beard and robes that continue the blue-white winter theme; Christmas Present wears a green velvet robe, with evergreen boughs as cuffs; and Christmas Future is a black-cloaked grim reaper on stilts.

This ghost of the future is also the show's creepiest figure, and that brings up the difficulty with Astin's portrayal of Scrooge. One of literature's meanest skinflints, Scrooge is supposed to be frightening.

Indeed, when Scrooge makes his first appearance in director Frank Hauser's adaptation of Dickens' text, he brings a cheerful street scene to an abrupt halt as adults and children alike call out his name with fear and dread. Later, the heartless tightwad is described as "fierce."

But Astin's Scrooge isn't fierce or frightening. At best, he's a cranky old coot. With his hunched posture and balding pate, he comes closer to Mr. Magoo's Scrooge than to George C. Scott's.

Maybe it's the memory of "The Addams Family's" ebullient Gomez, but when Scrooge finally comes around to a life of goodness and mercy, Astin's glee -- he literally jumps up and down -- feels more genuine than his earlier efforts at nastiness.

aflead,1 A few performances do have more edge, however, particularly those of Joseph Quandt, double cast as the Ghost of Christmas Past and the tough, Fagin-like fence who buys goods stolen from Scrooge's deathbed, and Don Perkins, who appears first as the tormented ghost of Scrooge's late partner, Marley, and later as Scrooge's first employer, good-hearted Fezziwig. And, though John Richard Allen's portrayal of Scrooge's poor, overworked clerk, Bob Cratchit, is too treacly for my taste, well, this is the season for treacle.

This is the first "Christmas Carol" to play the Mechanic since Richard Kiley starred in the short-lived Harnick-Legrand musical version, "Penny by Penny," in 1981. For "Christmas Carol" junkies -- and I know a few -- 14 years may seem a long time to wait.

This "Christmas Carol" won't disappoint those who like their Dickens sugary. It even includes a fair share of genuine carols (albeit at times lip-synced), as well as a lovely little special effect during the curtain call. But if, like me, you prefer your Dickens strong and dark, you'll have to wait a while longer.

'A Christmas Carol'

Where: Mechanic Theatre, Hopkins Plaza

When: 7:30 p.m. tonight through Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday; 1 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $17.50-$35

Call: (410) 625-1400

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