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A Christmas Carol

If ever there were a man of whom it could be said "he knew how to keep Christmas well" it was Charles Dickens. His vision of the season was so compelling that much of our modern celebration is taken directly from his classic work on the subject, A Christmas Carol.

In the Denver Center Theatre Company's first new production of the tale in 15 years, playwright Richard Hellesen's adaptation and Bruce K. Sevy's direction take us back to Dickens' roots—as the social conscience of the Industrial Age.

Reacting to brutal working conditions, widespread poverty, debtor's prisons, and child labor, Dickens wrote prolifically, turning out graphic novels that served as scathing condemnations of society's inhumanity and hypocrisy.

Dickens' keen eye for personal details, still referred to today in such characters as Ebenezer Scrooge, Uriah Heep, and Fagan, made him famous and wealthy. Invariably, at the center of these antagonistic portraits lies the shutting down of the heart.

Photo of Philip Pleasants as Ebenezer Scrooge
Philip Pleasants as Ebenezer Scrooge
Photo: Terry Shapiro
It is in this condition that we first encounter Ebenezer Scrooge in his counting house, poring over his records and riding roughshod over his underpaid scrivener, Bob Cratchit. When approached by two charity subscription men, Scrooge delivers his defining monologue on the poor, summarized in "If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population."

On opening night, new company member Philip Pleasants opens with a steely and seething Scrooge that gives us the chills—a fitting start to this ghost tale. But to truly appreciate the magnitude of Pleasants' performance, one must look to the details by which he convinces us that a man such as Scrooge can excavate his heart from the dark tomb in which it is imprisoned.

Pleasants' tack is subtle yet constant, taking us through a couple dozen peeks at the wounded heart that he incrementally reveals to us and heals in the process—including his boyish curiosity in nephew Fred's gift, the nostalgia that wells from within as he revisits his past, his outrage at social conditions he helped engender, and finally, his joy in giving to others. In addition to this emotional arc, Pleasants' use of facial indications and body language draws humor from the curmudgeonly archetype that only a Scrooge would be capable of resisting.

He is supported in this bravura by events at every turn. The stage is filled with impeccably attired, sharply drawn characters and striking images, and crowned by a wrought-iron proscenium gradually populated with seasonal Victoriana in the pop-up style so popular in that day.

Photo of Harrison Steele as Tiny Tim and Sam Gregory as Bob Cratchit
Harrison Steele as Tiny Tim
and Sam Gregory
as Bob Cratchit
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Sam Gregory is a meek and eternally optimistic Bob Cratchit, his ever-present Christmas spirit matched only by David Ivers' irrepressibly good-natured Fred. As Mrs. Cratchit, Leslie Alexander holds a frail balance between maternal love for her brood and stoicism against life's cruelties. Rachel Duvall shines as the Cratchit's oldest daughter, Martha.

The ghostly visage and ghastly voice at the front door is that John Hutton, as the soul-tortured, seven-year dead Jacob Marley, the first of several ghosts that act as catalysts to Scrooge's remarkable transformation.

Photo of Robert Ousley as The Ghost of Christmas Present
Robert Ousley as
The Ghost of Christmas Present
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Kathleen McCall captivates as the Ariel-inspired Ghost of Christmas Past, whose fanciful dances conjure key scenes in Scrooge's life. Robert Ousley is alternately Jovian then remonstrative as the opulently-attired Ghost of Christmas Present. In an effective psychological ploy, director Sevy keeps John Behlmann's towering specter of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come lurking ominously in the half-lit background while Scrooge quakes and confesses downstage.

Photo of Kathleen M. Brady as Mrs. Fezziwig and Mark Rubald as Fezziwig
Kathleen M. Brady as Mrs. Fezziwig
and Mark Rubald as Fezziwig
Photo: Terry Shapiro
The curly-headed, pot-bellied Fezziwig and his ample, operatically-inclined missus are played to comic perfection by Mark Rubald and Kathleen M. Brady. Joining in the festivities is Fezziwig's apprentice, Ebenezer the Young Man, played by Brent Rose, whose early heartfelt affections for Belle turn inert as his focus on wealth grows, finally leading to a break when Belle tells him that his "nobler aspirations have fallen off," and that she has been replaced by a new idol, "a golden one." Ruth Eglsaer wrings epic tragedy from this latter scene as Scrooge's youthful flame.

The ensemble is also impeccably represented in the younger set, with sweet, clear songs from Rachel Obering as Fan, Scrooge's sister, and Sam Van Wetter as A Beggar Child, as well as an endearing performance from Harrison Steele, as Tiny Tim.

Filled with traditional and new carols, underscored with emotive musical themes and sound effects, and supplemented with local talents Karen Lamoureaux and Randy St. Pierre, the production seamlessly captures the spirit of Christmas as Dickens invented it. "God bless us, Every One!"

The Denver Center Theatre Company's production of A Christmas Carol runs through December 24th. 303-893-4100.

Bob Bows

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