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Ghostly Gifts 

The chain-rattlers are back at the Great Lakes Theater Festival.

As we grow into adulthood, most of us become keepers of certain family traditions at the holidays. Then, it falls to us to decide which aspects of the season to hold on to without variation (keep buying the damn live tree, even though needles keep poking through socks past Easter) and which others to improve by tweaking slightly (Uncle Charlie's suspicious eggnog).

That's the task faced by the folks at the Great Lakes Theater Festival as they mount their annual production of A Christmas Carol. This is the 18th year in a row they've sent Ebenezer off on his ghostly time travels, and while they continue to get much of it splendidly right, a few new twists here and there probably would help keep their guests -- particularly the short, wide-eyed ones -- happy.

This Gerald Freedman script adaptation works just fine, presenting the familiar yarn as a story within a story. Laura Perrotta plays Mother Cleaveland, tirelessly reading the Dickens classic to her brood and exuding more maternal warmth than June Cleaver on an estrogen patch. Once the story gets started, the family butler Samuel morphs into Scrooge, and Dudley Swetland once again invests the part with bountiful amounts of bile, and eventually whimsy, as the old fart learns his lessons about "keeping Christmas."

Visually, the best parts of Carol are the appearances of the ghosts, starting with the gray and clanking apparition of Jacob Marley, Scrooge's dead partner. Lynn Robert Berg has the powerful pipes to put a shiver into anyone, and his slow-motion mime-walking-into-a-headwind stride, burdened by the chains of his mortal failings, is memorable indeed.

Also excellent are Fabio Polanco as the tall ghost of Christmas Present and the towering, skeletal figure of Christmas Future. Thanks to swirling plumes of fog and an entirely black set, these specters effectively raise goose bumps (even though Wilson Bridges as Christmas Past seems a bit flimsy).

But eventually, one wishes for a slightly broader and brighter palette for some of the cheerier moments in this staging by Andrew May. The Fezziwig party and the bustling street scenes would pop more if the stage lit up in colors, and this contrast would heighten the spooky segments even more. Similarly, it would be nice to see the reformed Scrooge prance out onto a gloriously sunlit street, rather than in front of a couple rolling window units pushed in front of the omnipresent black backdrop.

That said, Christmas Carol is still a bounty of delights simply for the language of the playwright. Who else but Charles Dickens would describe Scrooge as being "solitary as an oyster" and a person "whom no one would ever ask 'What-is-it o'clock?'"

Combine those finely crafted phrases with the underlying call for people to treat each other with charity and kindness, and it's hard not to love this warhorse. Let's just hope Great Lakes doesn't mistake tradition for atrophy as they approach future productions.

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