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The Alleyway Theatre production of "A Christmas Carol" arrives for its eighth season as an underdog striving to maintain its audience despite neighboring Studio Arena's decision to horn in on the action with a production of its own.

This humble shade of limelight looks quite becoming on a show about simple virtues and the triumph of the meek over the mighty. Indeed, a work as cloying as this seems less icky at a theater that survives on as modest an income as does the Alleyway.

I first reviewed the annual Alleyway "Christmas Carol" two years ago. Then, as now, the major virtue of the production is the Christmas carolling itself. The evening's festivities begin in the lobby before the show with a quartet of Neal Radice, Loraine O'Donnell, Maureen Porter and David Sambora, who sing a number of Christmas favorites.

The show proper features more Christmas songs and then segues into Radice's rendition of Dickens' familiar narrative, "Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that."

The use of narration in this adaptation preserves some of the literary quality of "A Christmas Carol" and enables the company to tap into the magic of Christmas story-telling.

I must confess, when last I saw this show at Alleyway, I didn't much care for it. Certain aspects of the production have been changed -- the sense of magic is greater, there is more care to detail. Radice's set has been shifted, giving the company more space in which to maneuver than before, though the action is still cramped downstage around the periphery of Scrooge's bedroom, which sits like the Rock of Gibraltar smack on top of most of the potential playing area.

More than last time, at this outing I enjoyed the handmade quality of the Alleyway "Christmas Carol." The absence of slickness is rather endearing, and what the show lacks in hyper-tech it makes up for in soul.

Despite the fears of many, Alleyway has held its own against the competition. Neither production is better than the other, and though neither is perfect. As I did when I critiqued the Studio Arena version, I shall bar most holds and suppress the critical function for the sake of the season.

Timothy Denesha makes as good a Scrooge as his neighbor, and the rest of the company is similarly pleasing. This is a production geared to delight, to spread good will, and to fill the Christmas coffers of a worthy theater.

A Christmas Carol

Rating: * * * *
Directed by Neal Radice.

Continues at 8 Wednesdays through Fridays, at 5 and 9 Saturdays, at 2 Sundays through Dec. 30 in the Alleyway Theatre, One Curtain Up Alley.

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