ON THE SURFACE, the annual musical adaptation of "A Christmas Carol" at Ford's Theatre looks just as it has for six years -- there's the charming pop-up storybook set, the towering ghosts with their fogbound entrances, many of the familiar cast members in multiple roles, including robust ex-Weaver Ronnie Gilbert. And of course, there are the dependably uncomfortable Ford's chairs.

But somehow, another livelier spirit has inhabited the theater this year, making the show one of the season's sugarplums.

Ford's wisely called in a new director, Ted Weiant (dare we call him a "ghostbuster"?), who whisked away the cobwebby cuteness, the fussy attention to period detail and the self-indulgent stalling by the actors. He's shaped Timothy Near and Rae Allen's adaptation into a brisk whiz through Christmases Past, Present and Future, broadly underlining Charles Dickens' moral fable and all its moods -- merry, maudlin and macabre.

Under Weiant's guidance, almost everything works: Ingrid Crepeau's 10-foot apparitions are whimsical and effective, aided by John Gisondi's imaginative lighting. Michael Howe's trio, particularly good in the spookier moments, gets subtle and versatile sounds from synthesizers, harp and percussion. The musical selections, including several carols by Benjamin Britten, are well sung and don't hamper the storytelling. Weiant has also inserted a bit of clever cross-dressing in one of the scenes, presumably to amuse the actors.

The heart of "Carols" past was Jarlath Conroy's Scrooge, snarling and grasping enough to carry the rest of the cast. Conroy has been well succeeded by Irish actor Donal Donnelly, whose more sympathetic touch shows Scrooge's petrified mercenary heart softening with every vision granted him by the ghosts. (Donnelly seems to have borrowed some mannerisms from an actor who preceded him in the role -- Mr. Magoo).

Sure, there are still some sore spots in the acting, as a few of the minor players vie for attention. But in nine-year-old Demetri Callas, Ford's would seem to have its most tear- tugging Tiny Tim to date. To paraphrase the most famous miser himself, whoever says "humbug" to this show should be boiled in his own plum pudding.

A CHRISTMAS CAROL -- At Ford's Theater through December 30.