Trinity’s compelling Christmas Carol

Comfort and joy
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  November 30, 2011

SCROOGE CUTS LOOSE McEleney and company.

The more things stay the same, the more they change. At least that's the way they've been having it with Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol at Trinity Repertory Company for 35 years.

The company's original version, adapted by Trinity founder Adrian Hall and Richard Cumming, is running through December 30 in the spacious upstairs theater.

It's such a warm, compelling tale, a sort of origin story for every clenched fist of a heart that ever opened to the world. You know how it goes: a sour old London businessman is redeemed by supernatural visitors who force him to examine the consequences of his misspent life. If Ebenezer Scrooge had never been invented, we'd have had to wait for Wall Street financial manipulators repenting before TV cameras, and that's been no fun at all.

The Dickens classic has been an annual cash cow for countless regional theaters, but usually the tradition also is to replicate the production exactly, for a nostalgic It's a Wonderful Life-type experience. But that's not Trinity's style.

Though the script remains more or less the same and the original music by Cumming provides the backbone, directors get the chance to re-imagine the opportunity. One time it was set in Providence, complete with the Big Blue Bug. There have even been female Scrooges.

This year it's directed and choreograph-ed by Christopher Windom, who graduated last year from the Brown/Trinity MFA theater program. He has set the proceedings in 1959 America, the land and time of the man in the gray flannel suit — the 1955 best seller by that name explored searching for values in the materialistic business world. Ebenezer Scrooge (Brian McEleney) is so dressed and so minded.

Scrooge this time around is a parody of a curmudgeonly mean spirit — this Ebenezer hocks a loogie into a Salvation Army donation bucket! And McEleney wrings out every drop of spite; there will be no subtle depiction in this Scrooge's hideous phase. Poor Bob Cratchit (Stephen Thorne), his clerk, decorates his standup desk with a paper doily scrolled with "Merry Christmas, Daddy," and Scrooge crumples it snarling, as though it's an IOU from a deadbeat. (Directorial excess? I think so, with this touch. A pathological Scrooge is of less interest to us.)

There are some wonderful touches by McEleney, though — even a cartwheel later on! When two solicitors enter his offices asking alms for the poor, he breathes like a dragon on the eyeglasses he is polishing.

This year there are more little changes and tinkerings than in most renditions. This is usually for the better — the Hall text has prompted no claims for biblical infallibility, as far as I know. These are usually ways found to enhance the moment, such as when Cratchit leaves Scrooge on Christmas Eve. "Where are my manners? Have a merry" — but he catches himself — "nice night!"

The '50s setting allows for some entertaining details. The sparse meal that his housekeeper Mrs. Partlet (Barbara Meek) serves when he gets home is a TV dinner. The Ghost of Christmas Present (Ricky Oliver) is quite a hoot as a pelvis-thrusting singer with frilly shirt and red glasses.

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