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Review: New 'Christmas Carol' bad idea

If you're going to alter a beloved classic, you better have a pretty good reason for doing so. You also better make it good.

Though Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" has delighted audiences as written for nearly 170 years, Playhouse Merced administrators thought they could do better. They decided to update it and rewrite it themselves and stage the new version as the group's debut performance at the Gallo Center for the Arts.

Bad move. The production is disjointed with poor attempts at humor and too many references to pop culture shoehorned in at odd spots. Though we're told the story has been moved from London to Modesto, there are no references to local places or people.

The show opens with a father telling his son the original Dickens story and the son complaining that it's too boring. The father decides to spice it up for him by moving the story to the present era and adding references to modern culture.

Ebenezer Scrooge (Bill Cook) is an angry businessman who barks orders at his assistant Bob Cratchit (Daniel Mauterer) to bring him coffee from Starbucks. Scrooge's first contact with a ghost (Gary Morriston as Jacob Marley) comes in a cell phone call.

The ghost of Christmas past (Jacob Bronson) is transformed into a lounge singer in a red sparkly jacket, and the ghost of Christmas present is inexplicably played by two young women (Stefanie Baker and Melissa Cervantes). Only the ghost of Christmas future is portrayed in a familiar way — as a faceless ghoul in a long hooded robe.

But one of the best characters in the story — Cratchit — is transformed beyond recognition. In the future scene, he becomes a miserly businessman who ignores his family. Tiny Tim (Judah Bateman) has no crutches and barely has any stage time.

The sets are simple — a few skeleton structures and some backdrops. There are desks and books for Scrooge's office, but no computers despite the updated presentation. Director Joshua Morriston does some interesting things with spotlights and having performers talk directly to the audience in one scene.

There is no mention on either the Gallo Center's or Playhouse Merced's Web site that this production is a modernized version. Maybe that's why five people in my row never returned after intermission at Friday's opening-night performance.

While these changes might be forgivable for a school or church production or a neighborhood staging for friends, it's the wrong choice for a professional venue where audiences have grown to expect top-quality work.

For more on Modesto area arts, visit www.twitter.com/lisamillegan or thehive.modbee.com/artsbeat.

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