However you count it, "Penny by Penny," yet another musicalization of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," amounts to a paltry sum.
There were reasons to entertain some legitimate aspirations for the show, which will be at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre until Dec. 5. After all, the book and lyrics are by Sheldon Harnick, who did the same for "Fiddler on the Roof." Michel Legrand, the man who gave us "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg," is responsible for the score. And as Ebenezer Scrooge, actor Richard Kiley might well be expected to illuminate the madness and the pain of that surly gentleman.
Alas, "Penny by Penny" is a hack work that appears to have been dashed off over an idle weekend, rehearsed in a few days, and thrown up on the stage with all the concern of Marie Antoinette tossing crumbs to the peasants.
Actually, the ghost of Christmas Past looks a little like Marie Antoinette in her shepherdess drag. Christmas Future wears a formless black shroud, making it difficult to ascertain just where its face is. Christmas Present resembles Rip Taylor, garbed in a green bathrobe. A smart silver lame' belt cinches his belly and sprigs of holly adorn him from curly wig to twinkling toes. Christmas Present does get the evening's best line, though, inadvertent as it may be, when he turns to Scrooge and gushes, "Look at me. You've never seen the likes of me before!"
In the absence of any decent scenes or a single hummable melody, director Kenneth Frankel relies on special effects to carry the evening. But they are not special at all. You can see the fire extinguishers that shoot whooshes of fog onto the stage. The eerie glow that illuminates Scrooge's bed would surely be more effective if the spotlights were not quite so evident. And the black and period etchings projected on the cyclorama for mood's sake are simply a cheap substitute for the scenery no one bothered to build.
Kiley does a lot of standing around in his nightshirt (that is the built-in curse of the role). He stares through space at the Fezziwigs doing a paltry jig, at the Cratchits giving thanks for an emaciated goose, and at his cousin Fred leading an inane game of charades. Kiley tries to inject the fervor of the repentant into his big second-act number, "Let There Be Time," but it's wasted effort. Legrand's melody forces the drama of the moment, and Harnick's lyrics, well, Hallmark at its treacliest would be hard put to match them.
"Penny by Penny" offers nothing but that most dismal of theatrical spectacles -- professionals working at the nadir of their capacities.
PENNY BY PENNY. Book and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick; music by Michel Legrand; directed by Kenneth Frankel; sets, Jim Tilton; lighting, Judy Rasmuson; costumes, Clifford Capone; projections, Sammis McLean and Lucie D. Grosvenor; choreography, Adam Grammis. With Richard Kiley, Gary Beach, Jack Dabdoub, Michael McCarty, Dan Strickler, Jill P. Rose. At the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre through Dec. 5.