This 'Christmas Carol' carries the proper holiday tune

ST. PETERSBURG — You could call A Christmas Carol — echoing another Dickens classic — A Tale of Two Scrooges. On the one hand, there's the mean, grasping Ebenezer Scrooge, the Victorian recluse who threatens to deduct the price of a lump of coal from freezing Bob Cratchit's salary and rudely rebuffs a pair of adorable child beggars ("Leave me alone!"). And then there's the transformed Scrooge ("There's a brand-new me!"), an extravagantly generous soul who buys the biggest Christmas goose in London for the Cratchit clan, makes charitable pledges all over town and leads a sextet in joyous song, God Bless Us, Everyone.

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So it goes in freeFall Theatre's staging of a new musical version of A Christmas Carol, with Steven Patterson playing Scrooge, one of the greatest roles ever devised for an actor. Patterson is up to the task. His Scrooge goes from roughly brushing aside a wreath that is playfully tossed on his top hat during some misguided frivolity early in the tale to inhabiting the miserable wretch forced to confront his own tombstone in On My Knees, the tortured aria he sings when he hits bottom.

Of course, the freeFall production is also a festive, family event, handsomely designed to celebrate the holidays, with plenty of merry music, both standard carols and original songs, in the musical by Bruce Greer (music) and Keith Ferguson (book and lyrics). However, unlike many adaptations of the Dickens novella, this version hews pretty closely to the source material, not neglecting the roots of Scrooge's misanthropy in his unhappy youth, and that gives it a bracing moral spine.

Director Eric Davis recognizes the value of a ghost story for the season, and he has brought a darkly fanciful perspective to the spirits that haunt Scrooge, with costumes by Mike and Kathy Buck. The ghost of Jacob Marley (Candler Budd) sets the eerie tone, appearing shrouded in fog — the fog machine works overtime throughout A Christmas Carol — and draped in chains and metal boxes, a wild-haired, hollow-eyed wraith, warning his old business partner to mend his ways.

It takes three more ghostly visitations to put Scrooge on the road to redemption, from Christmas Past (the angelic Heather Baird, toting a big hour glass), Christmas Present (bushy-bearded Jason Simon) and Christmas Yet to Come (Joel Gennari), a stilt walker cloaked in black, who presides over a graveyard quartet, Better Off Dead.

A Christmas Carol features a large potpourri of professional and young actors, with the kids not just filling out party scenes, such as Christmas Eve at Fezziwig's, but also carrying their share of the dramatic load. In some luxury casting, the marvelous Katherine Michelle Tanner plays Mrs. Cratchit, and Nicole Kaplan sings a sweet lament, You Once Were, as Belle, the girl who loved young Scrooge before he turned into a miser.

FreeFall is giving the first theatrical production of the Greer-Ferguson musical (it was written for and premiered last year by a Baptist megachurch in Texas), and it works nicely because of its fidelity to Dickens, and the score, if not wildly inventive, is well made and goes down smoothly. The performance is done to recorded orchestra tracks.

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8716.

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A Christmas Carol, a musical by Bruce Greer (music) and Keith Ferguson (book and lyrics), continues through Dec. 30 at freeFall Theatre, 6099 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. Run time: 1 hour, 55 minutes, including intermission. 7 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Show times change somewhat during Christmas week and the week after. $37-$44 with $20 tickets for those under 18. Teachers, seniors and military get $3 discount. (727) 498-5205; freefalltheatre.com.

This 'Christmas Carol' carries the proper holiday tune 12/14/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 14, 2011 7:03pm]

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