The Clarence Brown Theatre is the most sturdy of cultural lifelines thrown to us poor wretches clinging to the artistic driftwood of East Tennessee. Simply by existing it compensates for the aesthetic death of a thousand cuts that is a journey down Kingston Pike, and when in good health it provides sufficient spiritual antioxidants to fight both the toxins of the multiplex and the malignancy of college football.
This season we see the return of A Christmas Carol, back "by popular demand," a phrase which in my childhood I assumed meant an angry mob had literally besieged the box office, rattling umbrellas against the bars until a terrified stage manager gave the order to put the damn thing on once more.
And who could blame them? There is no surer way to access the Christmas spirit than through the pen of Charles Dickens, a man who once wrote that the entire Indian race should be exterminated "with all convenient dispatch and merciful swiftness of execution.…[B]lot it out of mankind and raze it off the face of the Earth." And a Happy New Year to you, too, Charles.
But, hey, Coca-Cola supposedly shot all those workers in Colombia, and that doesn't stop us enjoying Santa Claus, the corporation's third most-famous invention. So let's put aside our moral qualms and enjoy this review-proof perennial.
And indeed there is much to enjoy. Edward Morgan's sprightly, lovable production is spirited in all senses. With a lavish set by James Kronzer and Beverly Emmons' blissful lighting design, its production values are approaching the stratospheric. The cast, by and large, lives up to this promise, some of them even gamely attempting an English accent here and there.
Jed Diamond is convincing enough as Scrooge, but at times looks ever so slightly bored on stage. He comes alive, however, after his moral awakening, giving an exquisite performance of infectious delight.
David Brian Alley gives a likable Bob Cratchitt, achieving just the right amount of befuddled decency to avoid cloying. Equally enjoyable is the Ghost of Christmas Past, although it's extremely unlikely that even a misanthrope like Scrooge would begrudge a nocturnal visit from so comely a form as Jessica Culaciata's. Some of the evening's most arresting moments come from the splendid-looking Brandon Gibson, who, as Christmas Present, gives a powerful performance of cocky mellifluousness.
The two stand-outs, however, are the comic foils of Jon Liddiard's Topper and Lindsay Torrey's Miss Lucy. Liddiard has all the engaging foppery of a young Simon Callow, and Torrey pitches her angular spinster perfectly.
There are some spectacular effects, best of all being the appearance of The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come—a moment that genuinely sends a shiver down the spine. This effect is promptly ruined, however, by the crass decision to then bathe the specter in light, thereby entirely killing its mystery.
Occasionally the narration struggles to be heard over the tastefully canned music and, here and there, singers race ahead of their accompaniment, but on the whole this is as watchable a Christmas Carol as one could hope for.
The production is described by the theater as a holiday gift to the community, but surely the giving goes both ways. Whether the production is a case of simply giving the people what they want or a necessarily cynical piece of one-for-us, one-for-you programming, it can be no coincidence that the Clarence Brown's coffers should, come January, be sufficiently full to allow a season of more difficult, thought-provoking fare.
The horror of running a theater is that what promises to be a life of the imagination all too soon becomes mired in reality, and a particularly grim reality at that: the relentless grind of forever trying to make one number smaller than another.
So it would be churlish to deny either theatergoers their traditional stuffed goose or the theater its annual bonus. Go and enjoy it. It's Christmas, after all.