A CHRISTMAS CAROL -- At Ford's Theater through January 3.

Here's "A Christmas Carol," the irresistible classic by Charles Dickens, presented precisely when all of us should be gushing Christmas cheer. How could it possibly miss?

The production at Ford's Theater, while a pleasant enough diversion, shows how: Just go for grins and forget the chills.The result is something so amiable that one feels like Scrooge, dismissing it.

As Dickens wrote it, "A Christmas Carol" is the story of a hateful miser who has visitations from ghosts on Christmas Eve. They're fearsome apparitions with a terrible message, affording Scrooge a chance at redemption only by scaring him half to death.

As presented at Ford's, in a two-act treatment by Rae Allen and Timothy Near, Dickens' fable becomes the tale of a mere curmudgeon who thinks that Christmas is an awful bore. The ghosts who appear to him on Christmas Eve are sometimes comical figures, so Scrooge banters and wisecracks, often getting the better of them. In the end, though, Scrooge decides the holiday's okay, and everyone lives happily ever after.

John Cullum, who won Tonys in 1975 and 1978 for best actor in a musical ("Shenandoah" and "On the Twentieth Century"), plays Ebenezer Scrooge as affably as the character can be played, his performance complemented by a look that evokes, what with kindly wire-rims, a young Ben Franklin.

Cullum first appears not as Scrooge but as one of a group of carolers before the story begins, engaging in horseplay with a boy singer. That prologue leaves an impression that Cullum is never quite able to shake, even when he's growling at hapless Bob Cratchit, or suggesting that poor people should go to prison or die "to decrease the surplus population." By the time Cullum covers up his blond pate with a gray wig, we've already decided that he's not such a bad fellow after all.

The seven-years-dead Jacob Marley, who emerges from Scrooge's safe in a veil of mist, promises to be suitably creepy with his greenish face and iron shackles, but the ghost's eerie entrance is upstaged by a covey of minor spirits (Muppets, really) who appear, from time to time, behind Scrooge's bed, and even on the cobblestone street below, to emit kittenish squeals before vanishing.

This problem is repeated with the entrances of the Ghost of Christmas Past, a woman in a green nightshirt whom Scrooge finds in his bed, and the Ghost of Christmas Present, an eight-foot-tall figure with Christmas lights in her hair, who resembles nothing so much as Glinda, the Good Witch of the North.

"A Christmas Carol" is a story for children, and the elaborately staged skit at Ford's does offer a few amusements for a young child: mainly laughs here and there, and some pleasant singing and dancing. But somewhere along the line, someone decided that kids should not be scared, even in the context of a play, and even if kids like being scared. To that one must say, Bah Humbug!