A Christmas Carol, Drury Lane Oakbrook, and A Christmas Carol, Attic Playhouse. Charles Dickens is credited with reviving the celebration of Christmas in Victorian England with this classic tale of holiday redemption. Perhaps a present-day yearning for the true Christmas spirit accounts for the wealth of stage reproductions here–seven last week alone–not to mention 22 film and 140 television adaptations (plus a great Web site for all things Scrooge: www.dickensachristmascarol.com). So why brave the December deep freeze to see a live performance when cable and Blockbuster offer so many variations featuring the likes of Bill Murray, Beavis and Butt-head, and Susan Lucci, no less?
The draw to Drury Lane Oakbrook is Joe Van Slyke, returning to play Scrooge exactly the way Dickens wrote him. So many actors make Scrooge a growly caricature who suddenly flips on the merry switch after surviving his ghostly ordeal. But we see the icicles melting around Van Slyke’s heart early on, as he relives memories of Christmas past–the first steps in a gradual, convincingly human transition. Director Ray Frewen’s adaptation provides an efficient, upbeat backdrop, with a spirited supporting cast (colorfully costumed by Greg Slawko); lively, authentic dances (Marci Caliendo); and multiple melodious carols (Mannheim Steamroller, sounding so much better here than at Woodfield).
While the Attic Playhouse production lacks Drury Lane’s sparkle and finesse, Michael Paller’s adaptation offers a novel twist: he’s set the play in Dickens’s home, where the writer (Steve Ratcliff) is hosting a Christmas party. Among his intriguing guests are the editor of Punch (played with jolly pomposity by Ken Craig) and a literary critic (Steve Lehtman, cynical yet twinkly); Dickens provides the Christmas Carol plot seeds and the party goers fill in the rest, using the Christmas dinner and decorations as props. (Lehtman and Craig have a great moment trying to fashion a ghost costume out of a sheet and a wreath.) But despite some competent individual performances, the ensemble dynamic feels self-conscious, as if people were focusing more on their British accents than their responses to one another.
Whether or not these options appeal, the good news is that, no matter where you are in Chicago-land, Scrooge, Dickens, and Christmas are alive and well. God bless us every one!