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‘Carol’ trades soul for spectacle

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — I love Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” and never tire of seeing it performed. Recent productions have found ingenious ways to produce the familiar story, including an original adaptation by Cheri Costales, artistic director of Elite Dance and Theatre.

Landmark Musicals is currently producing the classic, and for its version they have opted to use the Broadway version by Alan Menken, Lynn Ahrens and Mike Ockrent.

As I was watching the show I was reminded of “Disney’s Beauty and Beast” and would have wagered that this was originally a Disney production. Sure enough, Alan Menken, who wrote the music, is also one of the writers of the Disney pyrotechnic mega-production “Disney’s Beauty and Beast.” Actually the two stories have a lot in common thematically. In “Beauty and the Beast” we see a beastly, selfish individual transformed into a loving person, just as Scrooge is transformed in “A Christmas Carol.” But as I wrote in my review of “Disney’s Beauty and Beast” last year, the production “is too encumbered with theatrical paraphernalia to convey the story in the simple manner it warrants.”

That’s precisely the problem with this show. The beautiful story is overwhelmed by a phantasmagoric panoply of scenic effects: ghoulish and rapidly changing colors via the lighting, wafting smoke, the near constant presence of falling snowflakes against the back wall, gigantic clocks and chains and even a gigantic silhouette of Jacob Marley’s apparition, also projected against the upstage wall. For this reason the most intriguing scenes, for me, were those staged down right and down left, in nephew Fred’s and Bob Cratchit’s family dining rooms. The simple furniture and lack of special effects was refreshing.

Director Laurie Finnegan has cast Ryan Shepherd and Jonathan Gallegos in the crucial roles of the curmudgeonly Scrooge and the poor, loving, and put-upon Cratchit, and they are both excellent singers as well as fine actors. But with the emphasis on external special effects rather than interiority I was unmoved by Scrooge’s transformation. The show speeds through without an intermission and there is simply no time spent lingering over the complex emotional life of any of the human beings represented in the show, not even Scrooge. The young cripple Tiny Tim is meant to pull the heart strings, especially when the Ghost of Christmas Future brings Scrooge to his gravesite, but alas this is not that kind of show. The investment here is in big song and dance numbers like “Fezziwig’s Annual Christmas Ball.”

“A Christmas Carol” is about “metanoia,” a Greek word meaning the total transformation of one’s personality and priorities. This is the word the Bible translates as “repent.” But metanoia carries more than can be translated into that familiar word. That’s why Dickens’ tale is such a universal human story.

This “A Christmas Carol” has everything we expect from a Landmark musical: a fine orchestra, excellent singing and dancing, a strong ensemble, but it lacks soul, and that is the one thing “A Christmas Carol” can’t do without. However, we live in an age of spectacle and external effects, and chances are this is just the show many will prefer.

“A Christmas Carol” is playing through Dec. 9 at the Rodey Theater on UNM Campus. Call 453-8844 or go to landmarkmusicals.org to make a reservation.

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