In the Spirit

Manhattan Children's Theater's second play of its 2006-2007 season, Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, will come as a welcome surprise for anyone who has heard the classic tale a hundred times and is not looking forward to it again. Adaptor and director Bruce Merrill gives us a nicely abridged version that packs the story's central themes and favorite lines into a quick-paced, hourlong, family-friendly interpretation. The result is a production that Christmas Carol enthusiasts and parents can enjoy while exposing their children to Dickens's complex language. Of course, a young audience cannot be expected to follow every word of the 19th-century English dialogue, and so the MCT artistic team has pooled its members' talents to turn the story into an engaging sensory experience.

Lance Harkins's stage design depicts a dark, shadowy world with an all-black color scheme that extends from the back wall to the curtains, and an abstract picture of a moonlit city skyline that runs along the sides of the stage. The set, when combined with Shane Mongar's dark lighting, instantly takes us into Scrooge's head. We see the world as he does, before the supernatural intervention occurs.

Once the spirits enter to transport the grumpy old man to the long-lost days of his youth, this heaviness is lifted. The first two ghosts appear onstage wearing long silk gowns with thick ropes tied around their waists, joyfully twisting, spinning, and skipping to illustrate happier times. When Scrooge is a nice young man dancing at the Fezziwigs' Christmas party, bright lights accompany the upbeat, toe-tapping instrumental numbers. But as we watch Scrooge grow distant and eventually lose his humanity, the music slows and the lights dim, returning us to the darkness from which we started.

Merrill's adaptation does not focus solely on Scrooge's life; it also pulls back to examine the effects his actions have on the world around him. The actor playing Scrooge, Aaron Rustebakke, is cast as both the embittered old man and a silly narrator, and he's too busy alternating roles to fully lose himself in the character's details. Instead, he acts as an effective device for moving the story along, highlighting the necessary plot points and providing expository descriptions of past events and supporting characters.

The story's emotional core and central themes are embodied in Eric V. Hachikian's original music score and Lauren Gordon's choreographed modern dances. For example, when the Ghost of Christmas Future appears in a cloud of smoke to lead Scrooge to his doom, the dancing ceases and the playful instrumentals stop. They are replaced with the frantic pounding of a deep, ominous note, while a harsh spotlight casts frightening shadows beneath the eyes of the ensemble characters rejoicing over the death of Scrooge.

Because of the darker elements and emotions explored in the story, this production seems best suited to an older age group. Manhattan Children's Theater specifies in its listings that it is most appropriate for children ages 5 and up.

Unlike other versions of A Christmas Carol, this one does not contain carols, songs, or festive holiday decorations. In fact, most of the laughter is provided through Andrea Steiner's props, especially a ridiculously large turkey with its legs sticking straight up in the air, and a miniature Tiny Tim doll that the Cratchit family delights in passing around like a football. This adaptation may not be the complex Victorian morality tale that audiences are used to seeing, but it succeeds in delivering all the sadness and joy we hope to feel when reading this timeless story.

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