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Scrooge On A Shoestring 

A suitable antidote to biggie-sized Dickens

Amid a constant march of new adaptations of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, the envelope has been pushed, stretched, and maybe broken in recent decades. Musical adaptations of the stingy Victorian's overnight reformation? Now there's a dubious idea worth numerous attempts on both sides of the Atlantic.

Perhaps the most bizarre mutation was the big screen musical, Scrooge, starring Albert Finney. About the time the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shows the chastened Scrooge his own funeral, all of London is celebrating their liberation from their heartless creditor! As the giddy throng parades through the streets, singing out to their tormentor that dying is "The Very Best Thing You've Ever Done for Me," the parti- colored opulence of it all sort of creeps me out.

That's why the new Classics Theatre of Charlotte production, adapted and directed by Tony Wright, may be a perfect antidote for biggie-sized Dickens. Unlike other live productions you may have seen hereabouts, at McGlohon Theatre and beyond, there are no macabre interiors or panoramic cityscapes to impress you. In fact, this current effort at Carolina Actors Studio Theatre sports no scenery at all! Just eight plain chairs on a bare stage.

Moving these chairs about to simulate different scenes in Scrooge's spiritual odyssey - while passing around the narration chores to one another - the cast at the Clement Avenue hideaway evokes the efficient storytelling style that Moises Kaufman championed in The Laramie Project and Gross Indecency. But the familiar hats, capes, overcoats, knitted mufflers and assorted Dickensiana worn by this motley crew gives our wintry storytellers an aspect that, even more vividly, evokes strolling carolers. Particularly when the narrators advance toward us en masse, imparting their tale.

So Wright's austere concept holds out true promise for anyone truly interested in the unvarnished durable goods. Wright's script takes us into nooks abandoned long ago by other adaptors, his direction makes enterprising use of the CAST space, and his lighting design is usually on the mark. At one memorable point, Wright abandons the lightbooth to the rejuvenated Scrooge so he can call down to that "clever boy" in the street about that hapless turkey hanging at the market.

The tots, teens and grownups who people the humble stage - most of them in multiple roles - are disappointingly hit-and-miss. Younger members of the ensemble are adorable and frequently audible, if not familial. Rodena Barr proves to be a radiant Belle, Scrooge's discarded love, and Brian Willard deftly navigates the servile and paternal facets of Bob Cratchit without the aid of props - except for the handy Steven St. Gelais as the towheaded Tiny Tim.

Don McManus is a sufficiently chucklesome Fezziwig, and his plea for Yuletide charity is fraught with pomposity, but only when he tightens his tenuous grip on his lines. After an extended hiatus, the distinctive Ginger Richardson shows little signs of rust, perhaps the most affecting of the many Mrs. Crachits that I've seen.

For sheer lack of merit, Willie Edwards IV established a historic landmark, failing to show up on opening night for his dual roles as Peter Crachit and the Ghost of Christmas Past. An SOS was sent to Allyn Points, who read the roles from the front row, flashlight in hand. It wasn't totally jarring in this bare-bones staging, but we'll surely get an onstage Ghost for week two.

When that little mess is cleaned up, I suspect the whole show will attain more of the quiet confidence this sort of rendition calls for. Already David G. Holland has both ends of Scrooge's spectrum nicely dialed in, the curmudgeonly clock-watcher and the exuberant newborn. His performance, sure to get even better, is the chief reason to keep the faith in Classics Theatre's troubled maiden effort.

Force-fed last week's overnight review of Alice in Wonderland by anxious family members, I was obliged to heed The Observer's recommendation and give second thought to bringing my step-grandkids along with us. After fourth, fifth and sixth thoughts, Sue and I decided willy-nilly to expose the young 'uns to the perilous journey to Theatre Charlotte.Turned out the 10-year-old and the 3-year-old enjoyed Candace Sorensen's Americanized adaptation of the Lewis Carroll classic -- reinvented and directed by Matt Webster -- probably more than I did. With Rebecca, there may have been a mystic karmic connection, since the original Alice Liddell was also 10 when a cleric named Charles Lutwidge Dodgson began spinning the psychedelia he first called Alice's Adventures Under Ground.

I was pretty taken with the reinvented tea party, which transpired around a table littered with soft drink cans. Three scrolls of cartoon drawings, which provided low-budget scene shifts throughout Alice's picaresque ramble, added a rockin' peacenik edge to the Red Bull revels, and Ian Sullivan was a righteous Hatter Dude. But the transformation of the hookah-smoking Caterpillar into a pipe-puffing professor seemed docile, the jazzed-up Cheshire Cat - Kimberly Welchons in a loud red blazer - seemed predictable, and the trial scene, with Rebecca Reinhardt as "Queenie," was lamely soporific rather than nightmarish.

Glances at the 3-year-old Liam helped to heighten the tension for me. While his eyes were perpetually glued to the 36-minute romp, he kept his ears covered from the moment the rabbit appeared, checked her cell phone, and led Alice on her merry chase. Not to worry, his mom later told us, he always covers his ears.

If the Observer warning was a false alarm chez nous, it certainly resonated on Queens Road. On Saturday morning, the stern review labeled the Mock Turtle's singing of the Oscar Meyer wiener song "a missed opportunity for audience participation." By Saturday evening, Erin White was imploring us to join her in the deathless jingle. The power of the press!

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