Justin Brill, Jim Dale, and Joan Barber inA Christmas Carol: The Musical(Photo © Richard Termine/Radio City Entertainment)
Justin Brill, Jim Dale, and Joan Barber in
A Christmas Carol: The Musical
(Photo © Richard Termine/Radio City Entertainment)
Now in its 10th and final season in the Theater at Madison Square Garden, A Christmas Carol -- The Musical remains an entertaining and enlivening spectacle that's very easy to like but rather difficult to love.

Of course, that's the case with many adaptations of well-known material -- and material doesn't get much more well-known than Charles Dickens's 1843 story. Is there anyone who's not familiar with the story of the niggardly Ebenezer Scrooge and his visit by four ghosts who teach him the error of his solitary, money-grubbing ways, thereby helping to fill him with the spirit of hospitality and giving? There are only so many ways to spin a tale that just about everyone of every age knows by heart.

While Dickens's story is relatively intimate in its scope, A Christmas Carol -- The Musical is anything but, with more than 60 cast members (though not everyone appears in any given performance) and four children's choirs. The show's enormous sets stretch out on the enormous stage, which itself dwarfs the performers before any of the production's other elements are factored in. Amidst all of this hugeness, the story's smaller, more emotional moments have a tendency to get lost. For example: In Dickens, when the elderly Scrooge visits his youth in the company of the Ghost of Christmas Past and encounters his lost love, the encounter is terse and heartbreaking. In the show, it's almost a throwaway bit.

One misses those wonderful little moments that have always provided A Christmas Carol with its emotional weight. On the other hand, the musical is dizzyingly successful at making sure that all of its big moments are as big as can be. That's not surprising, given the musical's creative team: Alan Menken (music), Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics), the late Mike Ockrent (book and direction), Susan Stroman (choreography), Tony Walton (set design), William Ivey Long (costume design), and Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer (lighting design) are among the cream of the crop of musical theater talents.

It's not just that the show's expansive sets are wonderfully characterful or that the costumes are so varied and imaginative; it's the way everything comes together that's so impressive. The creative team seems to have worked in perfect concert and the results are extraordinary. It's hard to imagine a more thrilling way of representing Scrooge's ghost-led journeys through his past, present, and future than the lengthy sequence that seamlessly combines songs (no fewer than 10 of them), dialogue, and dance. The centerpiece of the sequence is the festive, showstopping "Fezziwig's Annual Christmas Ball." But from the Past, when Scrooge's father is taken away for failure to pay his bills, to the Future, when Scrooge realizes that his overly frugal ways can have no happy end, the entire show unfurls as the kind of glorious spectacular that one rarely sees on Broadway. (For that matter, the orchestra consists of 24 pieces, a number matched by few Broadway shows these days.)

As much of an attraction as the physical production over the past 10 years has been the casting of Scrooge, a tremendously attractive star role. Stepping into the shoes of such great performers as Hal Linden, Tony Roberts, Frank Langella, Tim Curry, and F. Murray Abraham for the 2003 engagement is Jim Dale. An experienced musical performer (he originated the title role in the Broadway production of Barnum), Dale seems right at home as Scrooge. He's appropriately crotchety throughout most of the show and pulls off a convincing, complete transformation when he finally embraces the warmth of Christmas, kicking up his heels in ecstatic joy and appearing to drop a good 15 or 20 years from his age in the course of a few seconds.

Roland Rusinek, Jim Dale, and Kelly Ellenwood inA Christmas Carol: The Musical(Photo © Richard Termine/Radio City Entertainment)
Roland Rusinek, Jim Dale, and Kelly Ellenwood in
A Christmas Carol: The Musical
(Photo © Richard Termine/Radio City Entertainment)
Since Scrooge is almost never offstage, every other role feels like a supporting role -- but Dale's support could scarcely be better. Roland Rusinek and Kelly Ellenwood as Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig come close to stealing the show in their big number; and Catherine Batcheller, dancing the fiery silence of the Ghost of Christmas Yet-To-Be with arresting conviction, gives them a real run for their money. Also worthy of particular note are Gerry McIntyre's jovial Ghost of Christmas Present, Kristin Huxhold's beautifully sung Emily (Scrooge's lost love), and Paul Kandel's persuasive Marley. Nick Corley is fine as Bob Cratchit, a part he originated, and Anthony Colangelo does an admirable job as Tiny Tim.

A Christmas Carol -- The Musical is an unabashedly entertaining show with plenty of good music and a great deal of spectacle, qualities that link it inextricably to the British megamusicals that have now all but vanished. (How much longer can The Phantom of the Opera run?) But with the exception of Ockrent, who died in 1999, all the members of its creative team are still active forces today, with Stroman having gained special distinction as a choreographer and director. One of the most interesting things about this show is that if offers the opportunity to see how her work has evolved and also how it has not: Many of Stroman's trademark dance formations may be seen in A Christmas Carol, from lengthy lines of dancers to tapping chorus girls in glittery costumes, the latter a nod to the Rockettes that feels a bit out of place in a show set in Victorian London.

While reading Dickens's original work is still the best way to experience this timeless story, theatergoers of all ages and levels of experience are likely to find quite a bit to enjoy in A Christmas Carol -- The Musical. The show is well worth taking in if you've never seen it, or revisiting if you have; this production will soon be gone and its like will probably not be seen any time soon.