A Christmas Carol

Theatre in the Park
@ Durham Performing Arts Center, Dec. 5-7
@ Memorial Auditorium, Progress Energy Center, through Dec. 17

For years now, the character of the Lamplighter has opened the Theatre in the Park production of A Christmas Carol with the following, somewhat disingenuous words: “My, I wasn’t expecting such a crowd.”

But when actor Greg Wait said his line last Friday to an orchestra section in which well over half of the seats remained empty on opening night, the moment took on an unwelcome irony.

Let’s think this through for a second. It’s December. It’s A Christmas Carol: the mother of all family shows. And it’s not being produced by some out-of-towners that no one’s ever heard of: It’s a local company’s nearly Broadway-level flagship, the king of the known commodities when it comes to regional theater, with a proven track record of packing them since the Nixon administration.

On top of this, it’s also the first musical to be presented in a brand new venue.

Folks, if you cannot market that, what can we say besides “seek other employment”? Indeed, if the Durham Performing Arts Center can’t even fill half a house with a slam dunk of a show like this, what are they going to do with the harder sells coming up?

It’s a shame, particularly given what those present witnessed Friday night.

It’s now been 11 years since I first caught Theatre in the Park’s comic adaptation of the Dickens classic. Since then I’ve seen it twice, last checking in on the show five years ago, in 2003. Clearly, I’ve been away too long.

For A Christmas Carol has received a major facelift since then. Mark Pirolo’s finely detailed stage-length painted set backgrounds make this production appear to pop out of a Victorian children’s book illustration. Shawn Stewart-Larson’s audacious costumes dazzle the eye, even if they over-rely to some degree on hobo-looking, high-contrast cloth patches with too many of the poorer characters. Though I’m not sure what sort of synthesizers and keyboards are being used in the production, it now sounds like music director Diane Petteway has a lot more than those seven musicians in the orchestra pit with her. Choreographer Brijet Whitney animates the ensemble pieces with joy, before more reflective work in a second-act pas de deux during the musical number “Once Upon a Dream.”

Altogether, the upgrades have wrought a sea change from the production’s earlier incarnations. With hindsight, it seems obvious that the show’s present look and sound is what artistic director Ira David Wood III was after, all along: a work whose production values would not be too far out of place either on Broadway or off. For the most part, they aren’t.

But is Wood not enjoying the present work as much as the past? I ask because the gleeful, evil little 5-year-old who once inhabited Ebenezer Scrooge seems to have grown up a bit since last I saw him. I’m not entirely sure that’s a good thing. For best and worst, Carol is Wood’s show, as it ever was. With that the case, we enjoy the ride a lot more when we sense he’s having as good a time with the vintage vaudeville, bad jokes and silly business as we are.

This time out his topical targets include the financial meltdown, Sarah Palin, auto executives, Facebook and, relatively esoterically, Mary Easley. There are still too many song cues, particularly when too many of the songs say the same thing over and over. Though I’m not much for drinking games, if you took a swig whenever a character said or sang “Christmas comes but once a year,” you would have been plastered by the time Petteway’s band ran “Angels We Have Heard on High” and “Day Tripper” simultaneously through the same musical shredder.

The show’s high marksand there are a number of themcome when it’s furthest from the preachiness and treacly platitudes we already get enough in the season. When Scrooge resurrects as a late Vegas-era Elvis and milks that gag for all it’s worth before gravely gracing an audience member with a coveted red sash, we’re in the presence of the ridiculousand the sublime.

Act a Lady

Manbites Dog Theater
Through Dec. 20

You can say the same as well for a number of moments in Act a Lady, the robust season opener at Manbites Dog Theater. It’s a century ago in Wattlesburg, Minn., and a group of local Elks Club members are in way over their heads as they try to perform a play about the French Revolution. The “actors” for that show are male; the roles, all female.

Those expecting the brand of gender-bending farce that Manbites Dog has lovingly served up since its beginnings are not likely to be disappointed here. Playwright Jordan Harrison’s gloriously overwrought lines for an overripe on-stage melodrama had us cackling well before the end of Act One, with the show’s best lines still in the offing. Under the direction of Katja Hill (the partner of Indy culture editor David Fellerath), a strong ensemble crafts a surprisingly humble, unassuming group of “off-stage” characters, whose strength is hidden in their reticence.

The henpecked Miles improbably holds the line when it comes to the arts: “We know they cost something,” he admits at one point. “Not just money, but what you spend of yourself.” The henpecker in this arrangement is Dot, an accordionist whose fundamental religious beliefs are as tightly coiled as the curls from her store-bought perm. But even her vinegary viewsexpressed in songs like “Stompin’ on the Bad Bad Devil Man’s Toes”change as the show draws nearer.

At times, such off-stage confessional scenes are too brief to have full impactthe mark of a writer still finding his way. But the payoffs in the scenes “on-stage” are nothing less than delicious. Derrick Ivey’s Joan Crawford turns as the debased Countess and the quietly courageous Miles were a high point, as was Julie Oliver’s martial, but not unfeeling, Dot. Lance Waycaster and Ryan Brock played characters lost among the genders as Casper and True, while J Evarts gives the jodhpurs, boots and riding crop a run as Zina, the show’s director, catalyst and fraud. Karen Burns’ lucid take on makeup artist Lorna was a refreshing palate cleanser against the more complex readings on stage, in a show that, amid the farcicality, still manages to ask some humblebut pertinentquestions about gender, art and performance.