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No humbug, tale inspires endless duplications

Posted: Sunday, December 05, 2004

It's a scene every school child knows: Ebenezer Scrooge haunted at Christmas by the ghost of...a gang member from "Grease"?

Well, not exactly.

But a traveling production of ''A Christmas Carol'' this season does feature ''Grease'' alum Jeff Conaway draped in chains to play Marley's ghost. Conaway, who also co-starred in TV's ''Taxi,'' and fellow sitcom vets Jackee Harry ("227'') and Barry Williams (''The Brady Bunch'') lead a multiethnic cast.

Such creative casting and tweaks are nothing new for Charles Dickens' 19th-century holiday masterpiece. ''A Christmas Carol'' is not only one of the most popular holiday stories, it is one of the most malleable.

Actors as diverse as George C. Scott (''Patton'') and Tim Curry (''Rocky Horror Picture Show'') have taken stabs at Scrooge in films and cartoons. The countless film and stage productions include an animated dog story, a Christian interpretation, female Scrooges and a Scrooge-as-loanshark version where his name is Eddie, not Ebenezer.

The story of the old miser scared straight has been filmed for TV and the big screen at least 40 times going back to 1908, according to the Internet Movie Database. Alastair Sim's turn as Scrooge in 1951 is considered a classic, as is Albert Finney's 1970 portrayal.

But there's a lot of competition for a spot on the Scrooge pantheon.

Patrick Stewart, Rich Little, Jim Backus (as Mr. Magoo), Kelsey Grammer and Walter Matthau are among the raft of actors who have either portrayed or voiced Scrooge for the camera. Scrooge McDuck, a no-brainer for the part, did it in ''Mickey's Christmas Carol.''

Any complete list of Dickens duplicates also would have to include stage productions ranging from big-budget traveling shows to the one-man show by Gerald Charles Dickens, the writer's great-great-grandson.

Why does the 161-year-old story remain so popular?

It might be because there's a little bit of Scrooge in all of us, said Dickens scholar Natalie McKnight. The Boston University professor notes that most adults, like Scrooge, become overwhelmed sometimes by the need to earn and save enough money.

''Because we've all felt that sort of Scrooge-ishness in ourselves, because we've all felt kind of cut off from our past, when Scrooge redeems himself ... it is such a hopeful image for everyone,'' said McKnight, archivist for the Dickens Quarterly.

Jay Clayton, a Vanderbilt University professor who has written about Dickens, notes that ''A Christmas Carol'' has crowd-pleasing similarities with two of the other most popular modern Christmas tales, ''It's a Wonderful Life'' and ''Miracle on 34th Street.'' Each story is a classic melodrama with a life-affirming ending.

But while George Bailey discovers it's a wonderful life in exactly the same way on the same bridge every year, Scrooge's journey can take detours.

Here's a quick sample of alternative Dickens: a religious-themed ''Gospel According to Scrooge,'' a ballet version, a countrified version with Hoyt Axton and the Statler Brothers, Cicely Tyson playing Ebenita Scrooge in ''Ms. Scrooge'' and Vanessa Williams playing Ebony Scrooge in ''A Diva's Christmas Carol.''

Most stay true to Dickens' three-ghosts-and-epiphany structure, but fiddle with the details. In ''Scrooged,'' for example, Bill Murray's jaded TV executive is visited by spirits that include a cab driver and a two-fisted fairy.

With so many productions of ''A Christmas Carol'' out there, producers have tried to differentiate their product. The traveling musical with Williams, Conaway and Harry plays up the stars' pop culture pedigree.

''The ghosts of sitcoms past,'' sniffed one Web poster. But the play is a straight and spirited interpretation of the tale.

Audience members scrutinizing Williams' Dickens-like narrator for hints of Greg Brady must first get past his spectacles and British accent.

''I'm not coming out and saying, 'Hey Marcia, want to go to the football game?''' Williams said.

The production's biggest twist is that three of the stars and some secondary players are black, a conscious choice by producers to make the play more inclusive. Similarly, a recent TV production of ''A Christmas Carol'' that starred Grammer as Scrooge featured Jesse L. Martin (''Law & Order''), who is black, as the highly theatrical Ghost of Christmas Present.

It's a good bet Dickens wouldn't mind these sorts of changes, according to scholars.

Clayton said Dickens was used to seeing his books adapted to the stage in his own lifetime complete with plot twists. If it brought more people in to see his works, then fine.

''He took pleasure in reaching ever larger audiences,'' Clayton said.



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