Like mainline churches, midsized theater companies may look hopefully to the holiday season as the time many folks make an obligatory appearance, drop money in the plate and go home with a membership pitch tucked in their program.
The tastes of such Christmas-only theatergoers, though, can be as ritualized as churchgoers': Many of them have tykes in tow, and they're not looking for the raunchy laughs of such local small-theater faves as "Judy's Scary Little Christmas" or "Bob's Holiday Office Party."
In short, they want their Dickens. After resisting for all of its 18 years, International City Theatre has jumped on the "Christmas Carol" bandwagon. Literally. It's a traveling circus troupe that tells the Scrooge story faithfully but playfully, in director caryn desai's brisk, smiling rendition.
We're talking juggling, puppetry, stilt walking, tumbling, mime -- catnip for the kiddies, sure, but pretty wonder-working for the rest of us too. Desai has overlaid this carny element onto Doris Baizley's 1977 adaptation, in which we meet the ragtag traveling players pre-show and find them short of a few essentials: Marley's chain, a Tiny Tim and -- oops -- their Scrooge. When the part falls to the troupe's cranky stage manager (Ezra Buzzington), he offers feeble protests, then throws himself into the part with hammy glee.
And we're off, in a telling distinguished by the cast's convincing festivity -- particularly in choreographer C. Xavier Drayton's jiggy dances -- and by beguiling stage wizardry. Don Llewellyn's platform set is both circus ring and large clock, with Debra Garcia Lockwood's lighting turning the hands. Costumes by Nadine D. Parkos and Gelareh Khalioun are a motley mix of Victoriana and harlequin, abetted by Barbara Matthews' makeup and hair. Sean T. Cawelti's puppets are evocatively ungainly: A lumbering, two-headed Ghost of Christmas Present looks like a mutant Muppet jack-in-the-box, and a haunting Ghost of Christmas Future suggests a horse's head with a coal oven for a mouth.
Buzzington makes a delightful Scrooge -- emphasis on the "light" -- and as a whole, the cast, though assembled for this production, plays like an ensemble that has been working together for ages. Jeffrey Anderson-Gunter makes a sharp ringmaster/barker and a mean Marley, though his most deliciously deadpan turn is as the bell-jingling door to Scrooge's office.
The cast is ideal, both for the circus troupe and for "Carol": The bouncy fat man (E.E. Bell), the fluttering ingenue (Erin Bennett) and her zaftig diva stage mom (Lee Anne Moore), the lean hero (Douglas R. Clayton), the dulcet-voiced leading lady (Sarah Underwood) and a trio of impossibly versatile clowns: Yuri Lowenthal, Matt Gould and the brilliant Madeleine Falk.
All told, this is no drearily dutiful "Carol" but a broadly drawn big-top tall tale as humbug-proof as Christmas confections come.
'A Christmas Carol'
Where: International City Theatre, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach
When: Friday, 7 p.m.; Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m.
Ends: Dec. 21
Contact: (562) 436-4610
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes