A kinder, gentler look at the Scrooge story

Audiences never tire of the Scrooge story, as evidenced by the various iterations that pop up every year during this season in theaters all around the country. Dickens' tale of an old miser who sees the light and changes his ways before it's too late lends itself to endless permutations.

Locally, playgoers have their pick of three quite different versions this season. In Ashland, veteran actor Douglas Rowe is doing readings of "Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol," which imagines the story from Scrooge's dead partner's point of view. In Talent, Camelot is running "Sherlock Holmes and the Christmas Carol," which keeps the story but puts the great detective in the Scrooge role.

And in Medford, the Randall Theatre is presenting "Scrooge — a Magical Musical," which tells the story based on the excellent 1971 film version starring Albert Finney.

The stage version was adapted from the film in 1992 in England (titled "Scrooge: The Musical") with book, music and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse.

The show got off to a a bit of a rough start, with three days lost to ice and various illnesses decimating the cast to the point that Artistic Director Robin Downward almost postponed the opening, a step he ultimately did not take.

It was clear Saturday night the production had had a rocky road. It started tentatively in songs such as "Enjoy the Beauty" and "Chirstmas Children." The set changes between scenes were slow, the recorded music was a little off, there were some muffed lines. But the thing did gather momentum as it went.

Bruicusse has given the world a kinder, gentler Dickens, and the Randall's production reflects that. Ever the gritty realist, Dickens larded his work with nasty, sometimes horrific details, and informed it with a burning outrage at social conditions. Bricusse's music and book move the whole thing in a Mary Poppins direction.

Despite all that ghost business, this is a show of perky smiles, bright eyes and rosy cheeks, often assembled en masse for big, showy numbers in which the choreography somehow keeps all the actors, singers and beaming tots from bumping into each other.

The titles reflect the spirit of relentless cheer: "Enjoy the Beauty," "Christmas Children," "Happiness," "Love While You Can." Such tunes serve as a foil for such gleefully mean-spirited Scrooge songs such as "I Hate People" and "It's Not My Fault."

What darker, Dickensian notes there are come mainly from Scrooge (Downward, who also directed), of course, with an assist from old Marley's ghost (Tim Kelly). Yet Downward plays Scrooge not so much as the bewhiskered, old caricature one often sees but as an actual, imperfect man who is quickly moved to reflect on the sum of the choices he's made in life.

And everything here keys on Scrooge. The original production was a star vehicle for Anthony Newley, and has in recent years been most identified with English song-and-dance man Tommy Steele. Robert Brazeau's Bob Cratchit plays off the old miser like a beaten-down but decent man who refuses to go negative on his boss.

Marley's ghost is an exception to the general sweetness. Done up in white with his hair a ghostly mane, Tim Kelly furiously berates Scrooge from the back of the auditorium, then scares the bejesus out of him as he drags his chains down to the playing area.

He fairly shakes the rafters when he thunders at Scrooge: "Mankind is our business!"

The Ghost of Christmas Past (Kathy Wing) is a sort of kindly fairy godmother as she brings Scrooge sad wisdom. The Ghost of Christmas Present (Tyler Ward) is a big, happy, robust fellow, a cross between a forest spirit (Iron John?) and Robin Hood's Little John in a mood to party down. He is a spectacle in his huge green cap crowned with a holly wreath and sparkles.

The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (played by an actor identified only as ?) looks like Death as the Grim Reaper. The sinister figure is an opportunity for some scary effects but remains merely mysterious.

The show settled down a bit in the second act, getting a lift from Jon Oles as Tom Jenkins and little Tuesday Provencio as Tiny Tim. The novelty tune "The Minister's Cat" is hugely entertaining, and the reprise of Scrooge's "Happiness" adds a note of reflection.

Greg Franklin's clever set works as Scrooge's counting house, the streets of Cheapside, Fezziwig's Warehouse, the Cratchit place, Scrooge's lodgings and so on.

"Scrooge — A Magical Musical" may not be the definitive take on the iconic story, but it's a rousing spectacle, and one to which you can take the whole family. By next week this production figures to have it together.

Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. Reach him at varble.bill@gmail.com.

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