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First Nighter: Five-Actor Christmas Carol, One-Actor-Singer Love, Linda, Four-Actor Handle With Care

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Okay, I admit it, I entered A Christmas Carol at St. Clement's thinking, Oh no, not another one! Which just goes to show how wonderfully creative, not to say attitude-changing, theater can be. I left two hours and a few minutes later all but convinced I'd just seen the best adaptation of the Charles Dickens seasonal classic I'd ever seen.

Maybe, I debated with myself, it wasn't the best. I've always been partial to the Alastair Sim movie, but trying to recall others I'd liked as much or better, I came up with nothing immediately. Maybe Simon Callow's one-man take. Yes, there is competition for the top slot.

So let's leave it that Patrick Barlow, who dreamed this treatment up for five actors and very little scenery, has been as successful with this piece of work as he's been with his four-actor comedy version of The 39 Steps. That one is still running somewhere in the world and certainly at the Criterion on London's Piccadilly Circus. The new one should have the same kind of theater life--if not more, given that this is the Dickens fave.

There's no need to retell the plot wherein mean Ebenezer Scrooge (Peter Bradbury) encounters the ghosts of Christmases past, present and future and is forced to confront his own hard-heartedness. What does have to be said is that under Joe Calarco's spritely direction, the shaved-headed and relatively young-ish Bradbury is a fine Scrooge, whether in icy bah-humbug mode or thawing into his new philanthropist self. Equally importantly, actors Mark Light-Orr, Jessie Shelton, Franca Vercelloni and Mark Price -- all of whom play multiple parts as well as multiple instruments--are merry as can be.
Stevie Holland, who introduced Love, Linda in cabaret form a few years back, has revised it for theatrical presentation at the York. As before, the Linda of the title is Linda Lee Porter, who had what was, by all accounts, a long and happy marriage to the great Cole Porter.

Their harmony is often assumed to be in spite of the songwriter's homosexuality. Employing a more pronounced Southern accent now than before (if I remember correctly), singer-actress Holland -- who co-wrote the piece, subtitled "The Life of Mrs. Cole Porter," with hubby Gary William Friedman -- goes into all that.

She chats about the homes in Paris and New York that the Porters inhabited with her money and his and the diamond encrusted cigarette boxes she gave him on opening nights. She explains that the only time she became impatient with his gay life was when the Hollywood pool parties became too much for her.

But Holland's underlying contention is that successful marriages can be defined in more than one way. By the time she's finished, she's made the convincing argument that Cole and Linda Lee Porter were as gay -- in the former sense of the now appropriated adjective -- as two people could be. If there was a sad element to their union, it was the years he suffered after the 1937 riding accident that irreparably damaged his legs.

What Holland doesn't discuss, though she refers to Linda Lee's first marriage, is the abuse the woman endured. Therefore, Holland leaves alone the often-expressed theory that Linda chose Cole because his sexuality made him a safe bet. Maybe that aspect is eschewed because there remains no substantiation. Maybe only Linda Lee's hairdresser knew for sure.

Of course, Holland sings any number of Porter songs, all or most of them in contexts that pertain to some aspect of the Porters' connubial bliss. (Never mind that in William O'Brien's 1998 Cole Porter biography, the boyfriends behind various love songs are strongly hinted at.) And Holland knows how to put Porter across in the way Porter fans like to hear them. Just as importantly, Friedman knows how to arrange them with taste and tang for piano, bass and drums. Your favorites are likely to be there, but perhaps not all of them. I missed "I've Got You Under My Skin," which surely would qualify, and the incomparable "Begin the Beguine." But so what?

Richard Maltby -- whose most pertinent credits for songbook revues are Ain't Misbehavin' and his Maltby-David Shire collections Starting Here, Starting Now and Closer Than Ever -- directs with efficiency on a James Morgan set featuring nothing more than a piano and a table with an adjacent chair.

How're they all ridin'? They're ridin' high.
Jason Odell Williams's Handle With Care at the Westside Theatre/Downstairs is a modest romantic comedy distinguished -- if that's the right word -- by four engaging performances.

Speaking practically no English, Ayelet (Charlotte Cohn) is in a jam. She's been traveling in Virginia with Aunt Edna (Carol Lawrence -- yes, that Carol Lawrence) -- when poor Auntie dies. Making matters worse, Edna's corpse disappears after deliveryman Terrence (Sheffield Chastain) watches someone drive off with the truck in which he thoughtlessly left the keys.

Thinking old pal Josh (Jonathan Sale) might help because he's Jewish, Terrence introduces Josh, who hasn't really spoken much Hebrew since his bar mitzvah, to Ayelet -- and on Christmas Eve, no less. It's not love at first sight -- Josh is still mourning his wife killed in an auto accident twenty months earlier. But after much gesticulating and finding words they both know in the two germane languages, Josh and Ayelet develop eyes for each other.

Edna figures in during flashbacks to December 23 when Edna's real reason becomes clear for concentrating on Virginia for Ayelet's maiden voyage to the States. The rationale won't be divulged, but it figures in with dim-witted but lively Terrence's naïve belief that there's a pattern to life -- a conviction Josh refuses to buy.

When all is said -- in English and Hebrew -- and done, Handle With Care, as directed by Karen Carpenter, is an innocuous proposition, but with actors demonstrating the charm and humor these four do, it's curmudgeonly to object.