I Like New York in Yule

With Rockettes, stores and Scrooges, Manhattan evokes the ghosts of Christmas past

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As it happens, one model for this Scrooge was not Newt Gingrich but Charles Dickens. "He was a very generous man," says Mike Ockrent, the show's director and co-author, "but I think he viewed himself as a potential Scrooge -- what he might have become had his attitude been different." This Christmas Carol grafts part of Dickens' biography (his days as a child laborer, his father's trip to debtors' prison) onto Scrooge. It makes him less a villain than a victim of his times. "Scrooge is really every one of us," notes the show's composer, Alan Menken. "We all have a tendency to watch out for our interests and to avoid taking responsibility for the fate of the world."

The more obvious message of the new Carol is that it's big and pretty -- holiday candy for the whole family at $19 to $55 a ticket. It was confected by Broadway's top talent, including set designer Tony Walton, costume designer William Ivey Long, choreographer Susan Stroman and lyricist Lynn Ahrens. Some are working at half speed. Menken's melodies are less inventive than his scores for the Disney cartoons The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. He gets a B+ for hummable ballads and ho-humbuggable comic turns. Stroman's jazziest ideas are reprises of her dancing-on-furniture number from Crazy for You. Ahrens' lyrics are wan, snapless. It takes a while for the 90-min. show to become more than the sum of its parts.

But what parts! Walton attached rows of Victorian houses to both ends of the Paramount stage (already double the width of the standard Broadway stage) so that it seems to embrace the audience. And everywhere there is wonder to behold: Jacob Marley's huge skull glowering on the facade of Scrooge's house, sets that open and fold like mammoth pop-up Christmas cards, a spider web of gold chains on which Scrooge is crucified by remorseful ghosts, a tombstone that forces him into the rising fires of hell.

Ockrent loved the Christmas pantomimes of his English youth, with their | gaudy costumes and giddy parody. "We have to introduce kids to the theater," he says, "so their imaginations are stimulated intellectually and visually." In his Christmas Carol, children will find plenty to keep them beguiled: high- stepping oranges and pears, the flight of Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Future above the audience, a bountiful snowfall on the expensive seats and, at the end, Christmas trinkets distributed by the cast to lucky theatergoers.

The show is playing 85 times through Jan. 1, with as many as four shows a day. Even so, with a cast of 90 and devilishly elaborate special effects, this very Menken Christmas Carol won't break even for a few years. The producers hope to make it a holiday tradition in New York and other cities. "It's a story that has lasted 150 years," says Ockrent, "and I don't see why it shouldn't last another 150. Hopefully at the Paramount."

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