A beloved and ubiquitous cultural presence year after year, an improbable creation that has melted many a cynical heart, a beacon of unabashed sentimentality that somehow never cloys. …
What, did you think I was talking about Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol’’?
No, my subject is Dolly Parton. Well, both Dolly and Dickens, actually. Though their names may have seldom appeared in the same sentence before, the all-American country-pop-singer-songwriter-actress and the British giant of 19th-century literature have now converged in “Dolly Parton’s Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol.’’
Alas, it is not a happy union. Although the fault largely does not lie with Parton’s score, this musical adaptation of the Dickens tale cannot be counted as a successful addition to the ever-expanding Dollyverse.
Further alas, Parton does not appear in the spotty “Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol,’’ which could really use some of her incandescence. (The 73-year-old Parton did radiate some of her inimitable Dolly-ness in brief preshow remarks Thursday night, delighting the crowd after walking out onto the stage in a red Santa dress and black boots.)
Directed by Curt Wollan, with a script by Wollan, David H. Bell, and Paul T. Couch, the production at the Emerson Colonial Theatre represents the world premiere of the fully staged version of “Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol." However, it comes across as part diorama and part country-western variety show, seldom cohering into an organically complete musical, its deficit of genuine inspiration leading to a surfeit of slack interludes.
What slender charms there are in “Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol’’ can generally be found in the dozen or so songs Parton wrote, most but not all of them specifically for the musical. (She retooled a couple of older songs.) Wistful and buoyant by turns, Parton’s tunes at their best are characterized by the kind of authenticity and emotional transparency that have long been the secret to her appeal. Still, you may find yourself imagining – I certainly did – how much better these songs would sound if they were being sung by Parton rather than the members of a cast whose vocal skills vary widely.
In this adaptation, Ebenezer Scrooge’s ghost-haunted Christmas Eve transformation from miserable misanthrope to humanity-embracing benefactor takes place in the Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee in 1937 rather than in Victorian London. The hard-hearted owner of a coal-mining company and pretty much everything else in town, Scrooge is devoting Christmas Eve to serving up foreclosures. After a night in the company of three didactic spirits, of course, Scrooge will be serving up turkey and goodwill to all and sundry.
But Peter Colburn’s portrayal of Scrooge lacks the galvanic force of personality that helps to heighten the stakes of Ebenezer’s harrowing journeys to the past and the future. We don’t really feel the weight of either Scrooge’s terror or his redemption; we don’t ultimately care much about the outcome of his spectral journeys.
Because very few tales are as widely known as “A Christmas Carol,’’ an adaptation needs to offer a new perspective or shine a fresh light on the story. This “Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol’’ fails to do, despite the altered setting and a few tweaks to the plot involving Scrooge’s kinship with Tiny Tim (Sachie Capitani), how the young Scrooge lost the one great love of his life, and the means by which he gained control of Jacob Marley’s sprawling business interests.
The rough-hewn general store in which much of the action transpires is rendered with impressive detail by set designer Scott Davis, from the tilted square frame overhead to the Wheaties boxes sitting on a shelf. Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalogs make a charming appearance during a number titled “Wish Book.’’ But the script by Bell, Couch, and Wollan sometimes strains after regional or period flavor, abounding in references to moonshine, fatback, possum shank, being “angrier than a wet rooster,’’ and so on. At other times, the script defaults to overly on-the-nose aphorisms such as “It ain’t about what you have. It’s about who you are.’’
Most cast members play more than one role, few of them memorably. The chief cast standout is Brittney Santoro, who doubles as Fanny, Eben’s sister, and Sadie, his onetime girlfriend. Few others rise to her level. Though Billy Butler smoothly captures the venality of Jacob Marley, he doesn’t tug at our hearts in the vital role of Bob Cratchit. Also failing to make much of an impression are Jonathan Acorn as young Ebenezer (called Eben), Brian Hull as the Ghost of Christmas Present, Mary Tanner as the Ghost of Christmas Past, or Julia Getz as Mrs. Cratchit.
Bottom line: It says something about “Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol’’ — and about Dolly Parton — that the few minutes Parton was present onstage Thursday night at the Colonial were more indelible than anything that happened on that same stage in the two hours that followed.
DOLLY PARTON’S SMOKY MOUNTAIN CHRISTMAS CAROL
Based on “A Christmas Carol,’’ by Charles Dickens. Adapted for the stage by David H. Bell, Paul T. Couch, and Curt Wollan. Book by Bell. Music and lyrics by Dolly Parton. Directed by Wollan. Choreography by John Dietrich. Music direction by Tim Hayden. Presented by Red Tail Entertainment and Paul T. Couch. At Emerson Colonial Theatre, Boston. Through Dec. 29. Tickets start at $39.50. 888-616-0272, www.emersoncolonialtheatre.com