It’s no surprise that “A Christmas Carol,” TheatreWorks’ new musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’ holiday perennial, is slated to tour. Artistically, the show has been designed to hit the back of a very large house, spoon-feeding spectacle to an audience expected to clap along with a story they’ve heard before.
This kind of theatrical junk food struggles to withstand the relative intimacy of Gotham’s Lucille Lortel Theater, where the enormity of the overacting and the saccharine assault of the disposable songs cannot be dissipated over thousands of seats. In such a small space, the show instead becomes a lesson on the workings of brand-driven art.
The brand here is the story itself, and all the high points are hit. Moneylender Scrooge (Herndon Lackey) hates Christmas, abuses his employee Bob Cratchit (Christopher Guilmet, one of many thesps who play multiple roles — perfect for keeping costs down on the road) and eventually has a change of heart after being visited by the spirit of former business partner Jacob Marley (Kevin Del Aguila) and the ghosts of Christmas Past (Meghan McGeary), Present (Del Aguila) and Future (Stewart Gregory).
But that description may be more intricate than David Armstrong’s book and Mark Waldrop’s lyrics.
As written, the tale leaps frenetically from one major plot element to the next, wasting no time in detailing the characters or giving nuance to their surroundings. Therefore, in the “Christmas Past” segment, Young Scrooge (Miles Kath) sings sourly about having “no time for Christmas,” only to be usurped seconds later by adolescent Scrooge’s sweetheart, Fan (Margaret Nichols). With just two lines of “uplifting” dialogue, Fan is meant to transform the melancholy tone before belting an earnest ballad called “Christmas Shines a Light to Guide Us Home.”
You could get whiplash trying to follow the shifting moods, particularly as the songs keep spilling onto one another with hardly a breath between them.
Meanwhile, Armstrong (who also directs and choreographs) employs a directorial strategy that could be dubbed “all energy, all the time.” There’s no discerning the gothic chill of Scrooge’s counting house from the jolly atmosphere of Fezziwig’s store. Every locale gets created with the same bright colors and vaudevillian mugging, as though “A Christmas Carol” were a Vegas act instead of an emotionally mutable story.
The songs — with music by Dick Gallagher — are equally unencumbered by their dramatic purpose, which invites all sorts of questions. How, for instance, is Scrooge supposed to be scared of Marley when he dances along with the ghost in a toe-tapping jazz-pop number called “Break the Chain”?
For that matter, how can the Ghost of Christmas Future provoke fear of things to come when costumer Gregory A. Poplyk drapes his black robes in glittering strands of red and gold fabric? It’s as though George Clinton’s hair has been recast as a spectral emissary.
But when a tuner’s goal is slick, mindless entertainment, those questions may be moot. After all, the songs are catchy enough. The sliding-panel set offers intricate bits of trickery. And the cast — particularly Lackey, in a hammily dyspeptic turn — uses all the big gestures one expects from a showbiz spectacular.
This razzle-dazzle will get people cheering, even without emotional honesty or aesthetic sophistication. And happy applause is all you need in a family-oriented show.