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Story within a story

Tacoma Little Theatre offers up an entertaining take on the Charles Dickens classic

Gabriel McClelland and Mark Peterson star in "A Christmas Carol" at Tacoma Little Theatre. Photo credit: Dean Lapin

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When writing a review, especially about a play that I enjoyed, I do my best to avoid starting on the negative. But I have to get a problem I have with Tacoma Little Theatre's A Christmas Carol off my chest. I sat through the whole thing, two acts of it, and there was not a single Muppet. Not one.

Seriously, though: I haven't read any Dickens myself, and growing up the Muppet film became the definitive version of A Christmas Carol for me. A large part of its success owes to its injection of humor into what is an ultimately uplifting, but largely dark and gloomy tale. Miserly Ebenezer Scrooge's lesson in the Christmas spirit takes him through a world of ghosts, poverty, sadness and death, and benefits from a laugh or two along the way.

Michael Paller's stage adaptation of the classic story accomplishes a fair share of the same, via a different mechanic: the actors are cast not as literary characters but as the family and friends of Charles Dickens, entertaining themselves by "improvising" a performance within the framework Dickens lays out for them. With each performing a variety of roles from the novel, this story-within-a-story provides an aura of lightness that permeates the shadows of Scrooge's Christmas journey, without overpowering the emotions of the characters on the way.

Anchoring the tale - both of them, actually - is Gabriel McCelland, playing Charles Dickens playing Ebenezer Scrooge. Recently seen in Frost/Nixon, and Lakewood's Grapes of Wrath, McClelland skillfully weaves the disparate natures of the two characters: the friend-rich, cheerful creator, Dickens; and the lonely, mistrustful Scrooge. Each has certain elements of the other mixed into their core while remaining essentially individuals.

Surrounding McClelland is a varied cast of local regulars, portraying an even more varied cast of Dickensian archetypes, each assigned to the characters of their age-range and gender, and continual wavering between the well-worn tale and a batch of characters experiencing the same, but for the first time.

By virtue of the particular storytelling method, much varied use is made of a single attic parlor set. Furniture shuffles about, props and costumes pop off and on. A number of well-crafted lighting effects, from designer Kris Zetterstrom, lend depth and intrigue to the stage.

This is how (with cast and crew and story) TLT has managed to overcome its potentially crippling Muppet deficit, and put together a highly entertaining holiday show, from top to bottom. Given the wide range of Christmas Carols available in South Sound theater this year, I am glad to have found myself at this one, despite its muppet defeat.

A Christmas Carol

Through Dec. 24, 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday
2 p.m. Sundays, $14.50-$24.50
Tacoma Little Theatre, 210 N. I St., Tacoma

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