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VALLEY WEEKEND | THEATER NOTES

Presenting a Little Bit of Dickens

North Hollywood theater's chamber-piece version of 'A Christmas Carol' is intimate, with just six actors.

December 12, 1996|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Actor Davey Lee was a 4-year-old with large, soulful eyes and a wonderful grin when he began his career. He was just the right type, and age, to play Tiny Tim. That was in 1928 and it wasn't Bob Cratchit's lap he sat upon, but rather Al Jolson's knee while that great entertainer sang "Sonny Boy" to him in "The Singing Fool."

Now, almost 70 years later, Lee, clearly no longer the right age or size for Tiny Tim, is taking on a more formidable Dickens character. He's playing old curmudgeon Scrooge in a production of "A Christmas Carol." This one is at The Bitter Truth in North Hollywood, and it is a staging that promises to be a little unusual.

When the late Frederick Hoffman, a classical scholar who specialized in theater, formed a company to produce his adaptations, he decided he wanted to do a very intimate version of the Dickens classic. He created what is called a chamber piece, which is a work, as it is in music, for a small number of artists. The result was this six-actor evening, in which the performers take numerous roles, vocally produce the accompanying sound effects, and treat the drama as Dickens intended, a carol for Christmas.

Nance Crawford, the director of this staging, knew Hoffman well and was in the original production of his adaptation. Crawford--who is from a theatrical family--and is the sister of Johnny Crawford of "The Rifleman" fame--describes the very few degrees of separation between her and Lee: Her grandfather was Jolson's manager.

They are a cheerful and dedicated team in this holiday effort. As a matter of fact, the impish Lee seems a bit too cheerful for his unrelenting role.

"During rehearsals, Nance said I was being too nice a guy," said Lee, "so I'm trying to create more of a contrast between Scrooge at the beginning and Scrooge at the end. He's a very unhappy man. He wasn't born nasty. Things happened to him."

Crawford discovered in researching the original novella that Scrooge was actually a very literate man, a reader. She believes this is what made redemption possible.

"No matter how hard he tried, he was never able to totally stop his imagination, and he suddenly realizes that work is not everything. It's only one facet," she said. "Money really only enables us to help others, and that's an important lesson for us today."

Though Dickens wrote four other Christmas ghost stories, Crawford said she has a particular affection for the Hoffman script, and believes that the audience will hear the story as Dickens wrote it, and understand his intentions.

* "A Christmas Carol," The Bitter Truth, 11050 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. Wednesday-Sunday, 7 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. Ends Dec. 22. Adults $10, children under 12, $6. (818) 755-7900.

*

Cool Yule: Two other limited-run Valley holiday shows were created with the intention of providing something different for Christmas theatergoers.

One is a family show called "The Christmas Dragon," at American Renegade Theatre. The script is by Angela Wayne Randazzo, who also directs. And according to Renegade's artistic director, David Cox, it's a charmer for adults as well as the kids.

"It's about a dragon that gets lost," Cox said, "and how it's rescued by Santa and a little girl. It's about homelessness at Christmas." And that's a pretty current theme.

Current themes are also at the core of a holiday vaudeville playing at Ovations in Studio City. It's called "The Greenwich Theatre Company's Easy-Bake Christmas," and co-producer Michelle Ferrara said the company decided to create the show as an alternative to the standard classics.

"It's a twentysomething take on Christmas," Ferrara said. "We looked at everything that already existed, and they just didn't speak to us. We just thought we needed to take a fresh approach."

Ferrara maintains that the emotional payoff at Christmas can be great, but sometimes the consequences can be kind of crazy. And, she said, that's exactly what happens in Greenwich Theatre's evening of songs, improv, monologues and sketches.

"Mayhem can ensue," she said.

* "The Christmas Dragon," American Renegade Theatre, 5303 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. 7:30 p.m. Dec. 19-22. $4 children, $7 adults. (818) 763-4439.

* "The Greenwich Theatre Company's Easy-Bake Christmas," Ovations, 12747 Ventura Blvd., Studio City. 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday. Ends Dec. 21. $10 (plus one-drink minimum). (818) 380-7158.

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