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TMTO's 'Christmas Carol' a big, warmhearted extravaganza

"A Christmas Carol the Musical" is a big, joyous yuletide romp. Teen Musical Theater of Oregon's buoyant new production is a faithful rendition of the 1994 musical with book by Mike Ockrent and Lynn Ahrens, score by Oscar- and Tony-winning Alan Menken and lyrics by Tony-winner Ahrens, all of which fairly burst with holiday cheer.

Doug Ham's energetic direction, Cailey McCandless's rollicking choreography, Sue Quackenbush's vivid Victorian costumes, Gabriel Ash's fog-shrouded London and Brad Nelson's moody, saturated lighting combine for a spectacle that whisks the audience to 1840s London with dozens (40-some, I think) of ebullient young actors, singers and dancers giving it all they've got.

The opening number, sung by the company, "A Jolly Good Time," sets the tone. In "Nothing to Do With Me," there is a hint of something darker as Scrooge (a finely dour Brian Day, who in his day job is  a Central Point police captain) snarls, "If the poor have to eat, let them beg on the street."

But such Scrooge-ish sentiments pass quickly, to be replaced by the likes of the ever-patient Bob Cratchit (Evan Sheets) and company going all sentimental on us in "You Mean More to Me."

The ghost of Marley emerging from a thick fog band issuing from the fireplace in Scrooge's cheerless digs is a striking effect, Marley's chains have the requisite cash boxes in tow, and more ghosts quickly show up with the chains they forged in their time in this mortal coil. But with all the humor and the dancing, the scene doesn't really budge the horror meter. 

The Ghost of Christmas Past (Emma Kruse) is a fine singer. The warmhearted "The Lights of Long Ago" is followed by "A Place Called Home Part One," featuring Grayson Weaver as young Scrooge spreading still more warm fuzzies until all the good vibes culminate in the dizzying uproar of "Mr. Fezziwig's Annual Christmas Ball," in which the manic singing and dancing goose the gaiety meter up to 11.

The whole thing is irresistible. And it's in keeping with at least a part of the spirit of Dickens, who more than any other individual was responsible for the 19th century morphing of Christmas from a solemn, religious observance to the mad, modern holiday of feasting, gifts (read: the shopping gauntlet) and merriment.

OK, Prince Albert brought the pagan custom of the Christmas tree from Germany. But much of our Christmas — although its commercialism is beyond anything Dickens could have imagined — goes back to the great novelist and social critic. 

And granted, you don't go to a Christmas show to be frightened, depressed or outraged. Which is why "A Christmas Carol: the Musical" downplays Dickens' indictment of the flinty hearts of the prosperous class of Victorians and puts a big smiley face on the familiar tale of the redemption of a sour, old miser.

Dickens' Scrooge was a horrifying figure, morally and socially, and Dickens didn't dream him up out of thin air. Scrooge is the emblem of the wealthy elite of London, who, when they weren't sending children to work in the mines for pennies, routinely consigned indigent and working Londoners to the horrors of poorhouses and debtors prisons. To his grinchy credit, Scrooge still says, "Are there no prisons?" Are there no workhouses?" But the moment passes quickly.

Dickens was inspired by an 1843 Parliament report on how working-class children were faring as the industrial revolution re-made the face of England (miserably). He toured factories and mines where poor children were forced into grueling and dangerous labor, and he was outraged by what he saw.

He poured that rage into a novella with a good ghost story and a happy ending, and one of the most popular books of all time was born. Which is why the question, amid the relentless cheer, is how much cheer is too much?

OK, enough quibbling with Ockrent's book. The thing is full of fine songs, from the rousing "Fezziwig's" to the celebratory "Christmas Together" to the (barely) macabre "Dancing on Your Grave." And the script is synced with the soundtrack that comes with the licensing so that telling little musical motifs often underscore and comment on the action.

The dance numbers are particularly good (see the irrepressible Josiah Arthur as Fezziwig). It's an achievement to employ so many dancers so effectively, let alone the fact that choreographer McCandless and dance captain Maria Martin pulled off the feat of creating all the dance long-distance via YouTube.

There's a small but telling twist in the story that differs from Dickens. On our journey into the past, we see Ebenezer Scrooge's father being sent by a judge to debtors prison, as Dickens' own father had been. This bit of backstory gives him a bit of humanizing motivation he wouldn't need if he were simply, as in the original, a composite character representing London's one-percenters.

Let's be clear. "A Christmas Carol the Musical" is everything we expect a holiday entertainment to be. It's a big, warmhearted, good-humored, song-and-dance extravaganza from a big bunch of talented kids and some very competent professionals.

Is it Dickens' story, with its focus on the social injustice and the outrage? Not exactly. And something is thereby lost. But if you want an evening of sharply produced, uplifting entertainment after a day of shopping and a belly full of fruitcake, this will fill the bill.

Reach Medford freelance writer Bill Varble at varble.bill@gmail.com.

William Goldman plays Tiny Tim, and Evan Sheets plays Bob Cratchit in Teen Musical Theater of Oregon's production of 'A Christmas Carol: The Musical.' Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell