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CHRISTMAS and the theater are inseparably linked for me. As a child I spent Christmas upon Christmas backstage while my parents performed in "The Nutcracker." My passion for the theater itself harks back to those days when the adults I knew became giant mice and waltzing flowers. More than the smell of gingerbread and the sound of sleigh bells, the holiday season was the smell of makeup, the squeak of toe shoes in Styrofoam snow, and the thrilling applause of audiences.

The numerous stage adaptations of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" that appear in theaters across the country each year undoubtedly are motivated, in part, by the desire to create Christmas magic. The Studio Arena version of the Dickens classic is successful on that score. This is a production to warm our hearts. The atmosphere is festive and the audience seems genuinely engaged. Efforts have been made to create a sense of wonder as ghosts pop in and out, mystical fog rolls by, and by gosh, it even snows on stage.

How odd to be called upon to critique an experience that brings so much pleasure to so many, and yet, I must be honest. This sort of theater strikes me as hackneyed, and as a kind of artistic miserliness. What riches the theaters of the nation could give us for Christmas, and what slim pickings we get.

With 2,000 years of dramatic literature to choose from, it seems odd that "A Christmas Carol," re-created in a slew of saccharine retellings, watered down and sugared up, should be the most popular title in the American theater.

Does this occasion, perhaps, call for the total suspension of all critical faculties? Only, I would argue, if you are a theatrical producer. "Christmas Carol or Bust" is the cry heard throughout the land as, once a year, theaters see one sure-fire chance to cash in. Noel Coward once marveled at the potency of cheap sentiment, and indeed he seems to have been right.

Very few people care about the relative merits of any given "Christmas Carol," I'm sure. Folks will cart their children off to this show whether or not it is likely to cultivate bad taste among the young. Incisive criticism will only anger the community and spread bad will during the holiday season.

Therefore, why bother? Occasionally we all enjoy trashy television miniseries and sloppy tear-jerkers. "A Christmas Carol" is kitsch for the young. I would think they deserved better, but to avoid holiday lynch mobs I will hold my harsher feelings in check.

The production is attractively produced. Mary Ann Powell's costumes are uniformly satisfying. The set by Paul Wonsek, a 19th century London street, is handsome; Wonsek's lighting is usually effective, though the appearances of the ghosts could be bolstered by something more extreme.

Robert Spencer gives a capable performance as Scrooge. Most of the other actors take on multiple roles and are skillful. The cast is heavy with children, whose performances are under control and quite professional.

Amlin Gray's adaptation of Dickens' text is thoughtful and theatrical. Most of the best bits from the story have been preserved. The formation of Scrooge's unfortunate personality is not as clearly explained as it might be, but overall, the script is more sensitive than others I've seen, and David Frank's direction shows the piece off to reasonably good advantage.

You may recall that the Studio Arena mounted this production of "A Christmas Carol" despite the fact that the Alleyway Theatre, just down the street, has produced its own version every year for the past eight. It would seem that during Christmas, at least, Buffalo has not a Theater District but a stock exchange. And frankly, the value of "A Christmas Carol" is grossly inflated at the moment.

It is notable that two years ago, when the Cleveland Play House dumped "A Christmas Carol" from its winter lineup for the first time in 35 years and replaced it with "Carnival," it broke its all-time box office record. Let's hope that Buffalo can show similar invention, and resist the temptation to make "A Christmas Carol" an annual event at every theater in town.

Review Theater A Christmas Carol Rating**** Charles Dickens; Classic Christmas Story. Directed by David Frank. Continues at 8 Tuesdays through Fridays, at 5 and 9 Saturdays, at 2 and 7 Sundays, through Dec. 31, Studio Arena Theatre,710 Main st.

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