In his affectionate revival of "A Christmas Carol," Ford's Theatre's annual holiday chestnut, director-adapter David Bell has retired the shopworn Timothy Near/Rae Allen version, and with it the 10-foot puppets and cloying songs. Bell has opted instead to return to the heart of Charles Dickens' Christmas classic, which he clearly knows well.
Bell has swapped spectacle for sentiment in the many brief and vivid scenes, and has taken a few slight (but unobjectionable) liberties while remaining true to the tale. Watching it is like paging through a pop-up book, as the vignettes emerge from Daniel Proett's Victorian Christmas-card set. The director has also successfully emphasized Dickens' social concerns, and some elements of the tale have a particular poignancy this year, when Washington's homeless need a warm place to sleep.
Steven Crossley's Scrooge is a refreshing change from the usual ancient, ossified, scene-chewing ogre. His Scrooge is an embittered, but recognizably human, businessman in late middle age, and as the Ghost of Christmas Past takes him by the hand for a brisk tour of his youth, we watch the young Scrooge grow gradually chillier and harder in his lonely pursuit of wealth.
Frank Hankey is a warm presence as kindly Bob Cratchit. Mikel Sarah Lambert and Jim Beard play, respectively, the handsomely costumed Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present, and Beard seems to have been born to become the robustly benevolent party-giver Mr. Fezziwig. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is appropriately dire and spectral, but not so much that he'll scare the kids. As the tear-jerking tyke Tiny Tim, Aaron David Zielski is a bit hard to hear at times, but he squeaks his big line with appropriate fervor. Some of the acting in the minor roles hearkens back to the school pageant -- Bell is still casting apple-cheeked charmers with a cheerleading style.
Bell's lovely, lively production is delicately underscored by musical director Rob Bowman and his trio, who color the proceedings with piano, harp and bells -- and a handful of traditional Christmas tunes. This new "Christmas Carol" is really a return to the essence of the original, and it will be welcome back for years to come. A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. Adapted and directed by David Bell; musical direction, Rob Bowman; settings, Daniel Proett; lighting, David Kissell; costumes, D. Polly Kendrick. With Jim Beard, Steven Crossley, Gillian Doyle, Meg Durkin, Kevin Ferguson, Catherine Flye, Steve Grad, Frank Hankey, Helen Hedman, David Jasper, John J. Kaczynski, Mikel Sarah Lambert, Mike Magee, Paul Anthony Mullin, Beth Williams, Aaron David Zielski. At Ford's Theatre through Jan. 3.