With at least five professional theater productions based on Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol" playing in the Washington area, plus a number of amateur productions, the trick is to come up with a novel adaptation of the material.
Arlington's Signature Theatre brought in playwright Norman Allen to see what he could do with the venerable material, and the result is a rollicking musical called "The Christmas Carol Rag."
Allen, collaborating with musical arranger Howard Breitbart, has transformed the familiar tale of a hard-hearted man and the Christmas Eve redemption of his soul and mixed in familiar tunes. The hybrid production is part musical revue, part comedy with dark undertones, and a wholly delightful affair with the potential to become a recurring seasonal favorite.
Audience reaction has been so favorable that Signature has extended the show's run through Dec. 29, including a special Christmas Eve performance.
Director Eric Schaeffer, back at home base after his nationally acclaimed Kennedy Center Sondheim Celebration, teamed with powerhouse musical theater performer Donna Migliaccio, who stars as Evelyn Scrooge, a tough, lonely sweatshop owner. The old skinflint is transformed from male to female, and the story is transplanted from mid-19th-century London to 1911 New York City.
Only three of the dozen songs in the show are Christmas-themed. The rest are standards from composers such as George M. Cohan and Victor Herbert, often set to a ragtime beat. The nonseasonal songs mesh with the plot.
The overture is a medley of Christmas carols, and the ragtime double rhythm creates an old-time aura that immediately makes the new presentation seem traditional.
There's a roof-raising, gospel-tinged "Go Tell It on the Mountain," performed by the vibrant Eleasha Gamble, as the sassy Ghost of Christmas Present, and several backup singers. Viewing her sad youth, Scrooge sings Bert Williams's poignant "Nobody," whipping it up into an Ethel Merman-like intensity.
Migliaccio also performs Cohan's ode to greed, "Then I'd Be Satisfied With Life," in which the pace of the production line at Scrooge's sweatshop increases along with the tempo of the music. It's an imaginative and funny scene, reminiscent of Lucy and Ethel at the candy factory in "I Love Lucy."
Another highlight occurs when Scrooge is visited by Chrystyna Dail, as a sarcastic and quite Yiddish Ghost of Christmas Past, which somehow seems perfectly natural in this surreal setting.
Karma Camp has provided simple but effective choreography, particularly with some music hall dance steps in the boisterous "Where Did Robinson Crusoe Go With Friday on Saturday Night?" as Steven Cupo's bawdy Fezziwig leads the company in the Meyer-Lewis-Young number.
With the comedy are moments touching and dramatic, the former particularly evident in a visually intriguing scene in which the old and the young Scrooge simultaneously inhabit the stage, set to the old torch song "After You've Gone."
Lou Stancari's grim and gritty Lower East Side setting provides a realistic backdrop to the improbable tale, aided by evocative lighting by Chris Lee. The musical accompaniment is sparse, merely piano, alternately played by Jay Crowder and Jennifer Cartney, but the energy of the eight-member cast fills the theater.
Schaeffer's tight direction allows the several plaintive or gripping scenes to resonate, and the flow between the lighthearted and serious moments moves naturally.
"The Christmas Carol Rag" runs through Dec. 29 at Signature Theatre, 3806 S. Four Mile Run Dr., Arlington. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays. For tickets, call 703-218-6500.