He is the original grinch who stole Christmas. Almost. Ebenezer Scrooge, he of the “gloomy visage,” and a miser as savory as an “undigested bit of beef,” is undoubtedly among the most (in)famous characters in fiction. With a surname synonymous with all things mean and miserable, he is at the heart and soul of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, a holiday staple that has been made into several small- and big-screen adaptations, and whose theme has been recycled more times that Joan Rivers’ skin.
At this time of year, theater companies worldwide disinter Scrooge from his place on the library shelf and mount productions of A Christmas Carol to remind us that people are good, greed is bad and life worth living — and that man can be redeemed (here through visitations of three Christmas spirits, though you can substitute catalysts including God, TV evangelists and a series of 12 steps). It’s a timeless tale, even if the mantle clock on the stage of the Byham amidst D. Martyn Bookwalter’s cluttered, quixotic set for A Musical Christmas Carol insists it’s 5:29.
Yet don’t be fooled: This Pittsburgh CLO production of A Musical Christmas Carol is not the well-known and full-blown version from the musical minds of Alan Menken and Lynn Ahrens; don’t plunk down $42.50 (top price for every performance) expecting Big Stars and Spectacular Webberesque Special Effects. Rather, this adaptation (written by David H. Bell) uses local children, seasoned pros, one Broadway name (Edmund Lyndeck as Scrooge, a role he created for the CLO in 1992), a blend of traditional carols as filler, and one trap door. It’s a lower-case, bare-bones production, not a lavish musical; no one hauls out the holly, though a few fake geese do take a gander at the spotlight.
The show faces some intrinsic challenges. The book is largely expository and descriptive, the staging complicated by numerous settings and a multitude of characters. And the Byham stage is itself too large for a show demanding intimacy.
The trick is to steer clear of such pitfalls while maintaining the essence of the story — not an easy task. However, all things considered, this production isn’t a bad one. Under the direction of Jason Coll, and featuring his bouncy choreography, the show succeeds without diluting the story or distracting from its theme.
Lyndeck is careful not to play Scrooge as a caricature or a buffoon; he finds the humor in the man (“At my age, hauntings are very hard to bear”), yet refuses to play it broadly, making his transformation from selfish into selfless convincing. As the green-tinged ghost of Marley, Dereck Walton looks like a reject from the Land of Oz (or perhaps a really progressive bus-and-truck-company of Cats); he’s more fun than frightening, and adds color and wicked wit to the proceedings. The show-stealer, meanwhile, is Amanda Serra, as the Ghost of Christmas Past.
The show does get confusing at times, with so many people playing so many different roles. On opening night, it took a good 20 minutes for the cast to find its rhythm; lines were tossed out or barely spoken, and the ensemble, at least for a while, wasn’t as cohesive as it should have been. Trimming the show by 15 minutes would provide much-needed tightening.
Still, who are we to cavil? To paraphrase Tiny Tim: “God bless them, every one!”
A Musical Christmas Carol continues through Sun., Dec. 23. Byham Theater, 101 Sixth St., Downtown. 412-456-6666 or www.pittsburghclo.org