In the past 35 years, Buffalo has experienced its share of ravages and revivals.
Back in the winter of 1982, when Buffalo director Neal Radice launched his annual production of "A Christmas Carol," AM&As and its elaborate window displays still drew shoppers downtown. The clanging Metro Rail had yet to appear on Main Street. A one-bedroom apartment in Allentown went for $280, utilities included.
Today, throngs of shoppers no longer browse department store windows. Cars now share a newly refurbished Main Street with Buffalo's quaint single subway line, spawning 21st century businesses. A downtown one-bedroom loft will easily run you $1,200, plus.
But in the Alleyway Theatre's snug space inside a converted bus depot on Main Street, a spectacle much like the one that debuted 35 years ago is still going strong. With all the predictable lines and candle-lit scenes of holiday mirth and mysticism audiences have come to expect, Radice's tonally faithful production remains a comforting constant in a changing city.
Audience members would do well to arrive about 15 minutes earlier to catch the production's traditional quartet of carolers, who perform in the theater's lobby before leading the crowd into the theater. Once settled, the carolers cycle through the classics in a lovely pre-show warmup, by the end of which everyone is ready for the main event.
It comes, thanks to an abridged story by Radice lifted almost word-for-word from the original, with Dickens' famous introduction. It is delivered by James Cichocki, who is protected against the Dickensian cold by what appears to be several dozen layers of Victorian garb: "Marley was dead: to begin with. There was no doubt whatever about that."
To Dickens fans, no two sentences are more wonderful.
There's no doubt, either, about the talent of the actor playing Scrooge.
David Mitchell, more gifted than most in the craft of portraying villains, is delightfully vile in the opening scene, even beyond what "Christmas Carol" devotees have come to expect. When, in a clipped croak that may as well be reptilian, he suggests the poor had better die and decrease the surplus population, you understand that he means it.
Many actors portray Scrooge in this scene as merely insouciant, but Mitchell adds a thick layer of malice that makes his eventual transformation all the more fun to watch.
This contrasts, as intended, with the almost cloying jolliness and theatrical mirth of his assistant Bob Crachit (Jerry Hudson) and nephew Fred (also Cichocki). The same goes for the the nuclear levels of holiday cheer delivered by Roger VanDette as a fundraiser for the poor, as Scrooge's old boss Fezziwig and as the Ghost of Christmas Present. The same goes for Joyce Stilson as the Ghost of Christmas Past and others, Emily Yancey as Scrooge's onetime love interest Belle and others and young Jack Flammer as Tiny Tim.
Mitchell is compelling enough that you have to be careful not to sympathize with him too much, lest you soak up his humbugged outlook by osmosis.
Some might find the performances and set pieces slightly creaky, but then creakiness up to a point has its own kind of charm, especially around the holidays. It has to be noted, however, that the acting across the ensemble is uneven, with some characters wildly overselling their parts and others just squeaking by. But the strength and familiarity of the material largely smooths this concern away.
At the end, Radice's faithful take on this -- at a reliable time, in a reliable place -- comes across just as intended: a holiday chestnut that is well-worn if only because it is well-loved. Here's hoping it runs at least another 35 years.
★ ★ ★ (out of 4)
"A Christmas Carol" runs through Dec. 23 in the Alleyway Theatre, 1 Curtain Up Alley. Tickets are $16 to $32. Call 852-2600 or visit alleyway.com.