As the show progresses, however, the beauty of Kelly's portrayal comes to light. We all know the story: Scrooge snipes at his nephew (Steve Perigard) and his clerk (Richard Koch), declaring Christmas and its attendant focus on fellowship and charity a waste of time and money. Then, in a series of harrowing visits by different ghosts, the cost of his hard-heartedness is shown to him and he emerges a new and benevolent man.
When the Ghost of Christmas Past (Jan Guarino) replays for Scrooge the scene of his fiancée (Robin Harris) breaking up with him years ago, Kelly's performance really comes to life as Ebenezer excoriates the vision of his younger self for his mistakes. At that moment, we see Scrooge not as a monster but as a man racked by regret, someone much easier to identify with. Thanks to Kelly, the show isn't just a lesson but a journey, one that we the audience travel as well.
Director Nancy Cates backs up her lead with some fine actors in supporting roles. Perigard plays Fred, Scrooge's nephew, with a glowing cheerfulness that never becomes forced. Koch is particularly affecting as the clerk Bob Cratchit: humble but not meek, loving but not trite. From John Mincks as the Young Scrooge to Debra Wagoner as a giggly partygoer, every player is near perfection.
Of course, this time of year, you might ask yourself, why should I go to Theatre IV's "Christmas Carol" instead of the numerous others being produced by churches or traveling production companies? One argument would be that this one is a musical, filled with beautifully rendered carols of the season (musical direction by Stephen Rudlin). The songs written specifically for the show aren't particularly memorable, but they are well-used, either to tie different parts of the show together (a dramatically different reprise of "Ringle, Ringle" at the show's end, for instance) or to showcase a particular talent (as in Harris's lovely delivery of "Winter Was Warm").
But a better argument would be to witness the technical prowess of Theatre IV. Copious amounts of fog make for appropriately smoky, spooky scenes and extravagant costumes by Sue Griffin adorn everyone down to the thieves who steal from Scrooge's death chamber. Greig Leach's highly changeable set is both clever and attractive. These technical highlights together with superb performances make this "Christmas Carol" a distinctive treat like no other "Carol" in town. S
"A Christmas Carol" is at Theatre IV's Empire Theatre, 114 W. Broad St., Thursday to Sunday through Dec. 19. Tickets cost $29-$32. Call 344-8040.