Dickens scholars remind us the novelist wrote his 1843 novella in five chapters or "staves," a term synonymous with staffs of music or verses of song. So it was only a matter of time, and a great ear for song came along, until "A Christmas Carol" became a musical. But as Pioneer Theatre Company artistic director Karen Azenberg has pointed out in her direction of this production, the idea of Scrooge and all four ghosts belting out tunes and tales rests just as easily on the fact that, shopping aside, we all know Christmas primarily through song.
Friday night's opening of "A Christmas Carol: The Musical," running through Dec. 15 at the Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, plays to manifold strengths thanks to Azenberg's deft touch and a cast without a weak link.
It all opens with a bang on London's Royal Exchange, where we see Scrooge flex his love of money and commerce above his fellow man and community amid a dizzying array of dance, song and Christmas delight to which he's brazenly oblivious. Azenberg unlocks the rhythm and tone of not just each scene, but their smaller subsets, in a way that propels Scrooge's moment of revelation effortlessly forward.
Anyone who's watched the great film portrayals of Scrooge via Alastair Sim, Patrick Stewart or George C. Scott knows "A Christmas Carol" lives or dies by the almost microscopic gradations of change in Scrooge, from his very first "Humbug!" to the second he wakes up in bed on Christmas morning.
The musical version comes dangerously close to taking all that for granted, content instead to stuff the proceedings to near bursting with song and dance. As a result, we get a Scrooge who melts into emotion perhaps too early by the end of Fezziwig's ball, and before the sight of children Ignorance and Want smash his worldview to bits. The spiritual transformation is so locked in after that sight, in fact, that the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is reduced to a suspended entity as Scrooge works the rest out almost by himself.
But that's a purist's view from someone who'd rather stay home and read Dickens' original book than stalk new varieties. This production offers more than its share of tantalizing finds, including events in Dickens' life incorporated into Scrooge's boyhood, a Christmas bell-ringers concert, plus a stage maneuver courtesy of the Ghost of Jacob Marley seemingly inspired by our culture's current obsession with "The Walking Dead."
Australian actor Jamie Jackson plays Scrooge for all the character is worth in this unique context, broadcasting every fine-tuned look of longing and panicked reaction across the theater for maximum effect. Actor Gerry McIntyre turns in more than his fair share of great moments as a boisterous, Earth-shaking Ghost of Christmas Present, with a memorable minor role, too, as a "sandwich board man" who taunts Scrooge early on. And that's just playing favorites. The whole cast is great fun.
The ground is littered with versions of this immortal tale. If you've only time and money enough for one it's hard to argue for passing up this one. To paraphrase Bob Cratchit, "It only comes but once a year." Eleven months between productions may not be enough time to pretend you've never heard this story before, but PTC's production could well do the trick.
'A Christmas Carol: The Musical'
When » Through Dec. 15. Monday-Thursday, 7:30 p.m.; Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 2 and 8 p.m.
Where » Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. 1400 East, Salt Lake City
Info » $38-$59. Call 801-581-6961 or visit www.pioneertheatre.org for more information.
Bottom line •A musical reincarnation that breathes new life into a holiday-season war horse, even if it cuts certain corners in dramatic effect. Jamie Jackson as Scrooge is superb. One hour and 50 minutes with a 15-minute intermission.