Not only did Charles Dickens give his holiday story, A Christmas Carol, a musical name, he called the chapters "staves." So even though other Dickens books - Oliver Twist and The Mystery of Edwin Drood, for example - have been turned into stage musicals, A Christmas Carol has always seemed the most likely candidate.
There have certainly been more than a few Carol musicals over the years (a review of a localized version appears on Page 3E). But of the many Christmas Carols I have seen, the new production of Leslie Bricusse's 1992 Scrooge - adapted, in turn, from the 1970 Albert Finney movie - is among the most impressive.
As Baltimore author Norrie Epstein points out in her book The Friendly Dickens, "It is strange that the Carol is regarded as a child's tale. It portrays the ache of regret, nostalgia, and longing that can only be experienced by adults." Director Bob Tomson's touring production at the Hippodrome Theatre captures all of these sophisticated adult emotions, while also being gritty, scary and ultimately, reassuring and warm.
The grit is due largely to designer Paul Farnsworth's Victorian London tenement set. The chills (and some thrills) stem from Paul Kieve's illusions and Nick Richings' lighting.
But the depth of emotion comes primarily from the performance of Richard Chamberlain in the title role. With dark, spiky, painted-on brows and his gray hair worn in a kind of punk, horned style, a scowling Chamberlain begins the play as a thoroughly unpleasant figure (his first words are the curmudgeonly lyric, "I hate Christmas").
Nor is there any doubt about the extent of his avarice. In the song, "M.O.N.E.Y.," a golden glow emanates from his cash box, illuminating Scrooge's face. As he sings, he gets down on one knee, clasping his hands in prayer to Mammon, and when he spots a stray coin on the floor, he crawls to retrieve it, becoming literally, a money grubber.
In terms of his singing, Chamberlain holds his own, and in the second act song, "A Better Life," in which Scrooge starts to turn his life around, the actor easily fills an empty stage. His numbers initially are almost recited, in the style of My Fair Lady's Henry Higgins (a role Chamberlain played on Broadway in 1993). But by the second act, when Scrooge is a changed man, Chamberlain is vocalizing full out.
There are also several rousing large-cast numbers. In "December the Twenty-Fifth," sung at a party that Scrooge revisits with the Ghost of Christmas Past (Roberta Duchak), Scrooge's former employer, Fezziwig, and his wife (jolly Adam Kozlowski and Liz Pazik), infect the company with contagious merriment. And in the excessively catchy "Thank You Very Much," performed in a street scene that Scrooge witnesses with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (Scott Calcagno), a loose-limbed actor named George Keating leads his fellow celebrants in dancing on Scrooge's coffin. (The choreography is by Lisa Kent.)
One of the show's most inspired touches is the double casting of actors David New and Rebecka Reeve as, respectively, Young Scrooge and his fiancee in the past, and as Scrooge's nephew and bride in the present. It's genuinely moving for Scrooge - and for the audience - to see the same actors experience the joy that Scrooge forsook when he chose the love of money over the love of his sweetheart.
If much of the music and staging recall another musical, Oliver!, it's not surprising given the author of the source material for both. One of the only faults in this production of Scrooge is that it is extremely over-amplified. Correct that, and this poignant Dickens adaptation - preferably with Chamberlain repeating his starring role - deserves to become as much an annual holiday treat as wreaths, eggnog and mistletoe.
Where: Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St.
When: 8 p.m. today-Saturday, 6:30 p.m. Sunday; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday