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Even Andrew May, who directs the Great Lakes Theater Festival's production of A Christmas Carol, is at a loss for words when it comes to explaining the appeal of the annual favorite. All he knows is that Great Lakes' take on Charles Dickens' holiday classic has become one of Cleveland's holiday traditions. "This town has a lot of institutions," he says. "This is one of them. We don't say so; the people say so. They keep coming back year after year."

It helps that Great Lakes' staging of A Christmas Carol sticks pretty close to Dickens' original gloomy tale. Unlike the Disneyfied gloss so often applied to modern versions of the story, Great Lakes' telling emphasizes the novel's Victorian settings and folk leanings. "It's Scrooge's story," says May. "The arc of his journey needs to be high. He needs to sink into low doldrums so that he could really be happy at the end."

Great Lakes has staged Gerald Freedman's adaptation of A Christmas Carol for the past 18 years. The play starts with a Cleveland family reading Dickens' book. As the story unfolds, family members turn into the novel's main characters. "People come to the theater to see spectacle, and this is spectacle," says May. More than 60 characters appear onstage. And there are plenty of special effects. "If you're willing to suspend disbelief," he says, "you will be transformed."

May also thinks of the play as an invitation to suburbanites and others who rarely make it downtown to come and see what the city has to offer during the holidays. "Downtown isn't a nasty word," he says. "I want people to have an urban experience and see how great things look this time of year."
Thursdays, Fridays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays, 1:30 & 7:30 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Starts: Nov. 24. Continues through Dec. 23

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