In most markets, the cash-cow known as "A Christmas Carol" is the province of regional reps, which tend to do earnest, weighty productions of the Charles Dickens anti-capitalist screed. Those are a far cry from the toe-tapping, easily underrated Leslie Bricusse tuner, now on the road and happily full of ghosts, turkeys, ditties and cute kiddies.

America’s perverse annual flirtation with seasonal socialism is like a weird flipside to the Republican revolution. But in most markets, the cash-cow known as “A Christmas Carol” is the province of regional reps, which tend to do earnest, weighty productions of the Charles Dickens anti-capitalist screed. Those are a far cry from the toe-tapping, easily underrated Leslie Bricusse tuner, now on the road and happily full of ghosts, turkeys, ditties and cute kiddies.

“Scrooge” is well known in the United Kingdom but under-exposed Stateside. But thanks in part to better-than-anticipated production values and a stellar lead performance from the seemingly indefatigable Richard Chamberlain, this short seasonal tour of a perfectly decent family musical should do better-than-average business — once we get past Thanksgiving, at least.

Peppy, perky and user-friendly, this is a “Scrooge” that even the red states can love. Hell, even monetarism needs a holiday. And there are plenty of people who think “A Christmas Carol” was penned as a tuner by Dickens in the first place. “Scrooge” merely ensures they are not disappointed.

This is a show where the magic gets more emphasis than the tricky themes of the rich finding it hard to enter the kingdom of heaven. But who wants guilt for Christmas, anyway? Expect to see “Scrooge” become an annual road fixture.

Best known in its celluloid version (with Albert Finney as the titular skinflint) “Scrooge” was beefed up some years ago for a U.K. stage production. It’s a cheerfully anachronistic kind of score — the Bricusse style here is a mix of Broadway and Mersey Beat, with shadings of pub drinking songs. Once Bricusse gets the lush strings going (here rendered in electronic form), you sometimes would swear you can hear echoes of 007 behind the melodic hooks.

This isn’t exactly one for Victorian purists, or Dickens purists. The show fiddles in all kinds of ways with the original novel, changing names, plot points and even turning the Ghost of Christmas Past into Scrooge’s dead sister. But, hey. That’s why they have the public domain.

Anyway, fans of Bricusse music get a treat. Aside from “Thank You Very Much,” a tune that latches into the skull with the same ferocity that Tiny Tim clings to his crutches, this show is full of catchy melodies and lush harmonies. Songs like “I’ll Begin Again” (once a Sammy Davis Jr. perennial) and “Happiness” may not be fonts of musical innovation, but they are darn good numbers for the musical theater, full of heart and zest and lyrical logic. And where his numbers are concerned, Chamberlain sinks his teeth right into their heart.

Indeed, it’s hard to find anything wrong with the lead. He might speak his way through the odd line of music (shades of “My Fair Lady”) but his acting technique remains as clean and accessible as ever. His Hollywood good looks don’t entirely jar with our usual view of the moneylender, but at least we sense that he gives a damn. And he even manages in spots to bring a lump to the throat.

Chamberlain is backed up by a largely Chicago-originating company that generally hits the right buttons. This is not a show for the shy or the understated, and performers like George Keating and Jennifer Chada oblige with large, cheerful interpretations that are both likable and well sung.

Production values aren’t exactly Radio City-sized, but they work fine, with Paul Kieve earning his paycheck as the designer of the transportable sight gags.

“Scrooge,” of course, is what it is, and auds will self-select in or out. This is strictly for the wholesome family crowd with a big nod toward the light and frothy. But those who buy this traditional product won’t find any coal in their stocking.

Scrooge

Oriental Theater, Chicago; 1,500 Seats; $73 Top

Production

A Bill Kenwright production of a musical in two acts with book, music and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse. Directed by Bob Tomson. Choreography, Lisa Kent.

Creative

Illusions, Peter Kieve; settings, Paul Farnsworth; lighting, Nick Richings; sound, Mick Potter; musical direction, Edward G. Robinson. Opened Oct. 28, 2004; reviewed Oct. 31. Running time: 2 HOURS, 25 MIN.

Cast

Scrooge - Richard Chamberlain Jacob Marley - Jonathan Weir Ghost of Christmas Past - Roberta Duchak Ghost of Christmas Present - Larry Adams Isabel - Rebecka Reeve Fezziwig - Adam Kowlowski Bob Cratchit - Todd Gross Harry - David New Bess - Karla L. Beard
With: Lauren Bishop, Jane Blass, Scott Calcagno, Jennifer Chada, Michael Elhers, George Keating, Peter Kevoian, Mark LaRocca, Regina Leslie, Liz Palik, Abigail Sparrow, Amy Sparrow, Stephen Wallem, Audrey Yeck, Peter James Zielinski.
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