Like finding an extra box of ornaments, the Firebird Ensemble brought back its tradition of Jon Deak’s “The Passion of Scrooge’’ this year, performing the new-musical version of Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol’’ in free community concerts at Faneuil Hall and, on Monday, Dorchester’s Strand Theatre. Deak, who came up from New York for the occasion, spins a version both modern and old-fashioned. Emphasizing the story’s psychological, hallucinatory side, Deak filters the entire story through a single baritone soloist, framing it as an updated version of that 19th-century diversion, the melodrama.
The baritone, as in Firebird Christmases past, was Aaron Engebreth, offering a tour de force from sprechstimme to singing, and misanthropy to redemption, flipping between characters with physical and vocal ingenuity. Deak’s music surrounds the tale’s essentially neo-Romantic core with a profusion of instrumental sound effects: sliding, glassy strings and slippery bass clarinet for a dark night of the soul; a lilting English pastoral memory of youth. It’s not unlike an intricate film score, shouldering the bulk of the pictorial necessity; conductor Jeffrey Means kept the scenery flowing effortlessly.
Kids - who made up the bulk of the audience - are kids, and their varying levels of restlessness offered an immediate stream of literary critique. They were engaged by the ghost-story aspects of the story, but attention drifted during its moralistic juxtaposition of time frames. Engebreth’s villainous Scrooge, a toccata of sneers, sniffles, and hunchbacked body language, was a hit; but his reflective Scrooge, taking inventory of the forestalled possibility of youth, was of a subtle soulfulness perhaps better appreciated by grown-ups. It hinted at just how unlikely a children’s classic Dickens’s fable is to begin with, adult despondencies of impending mortality and suppressed regret only veering into holiday cheer at the last moment. That Deak and Engebreth and the players could capture any preteen attention with such subject matter was an accomplishment in itself.
A contingent of the grade-school-age Boston City Singers, under the direction of Jane Money, joined with the ensemble for David Hamilton’s “Dear Santa (How’s It Looking?),’’ sounding out St. Nicholas as to his delivery prospects with pointed Tin Pan Alley nonchalance. The Singers then led the audience in “Deck the Halls’’ and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.’’ Those who fret over the survival of tradition would have been pleased to hear a crowd of 21st-century Boston youngsters well-versed in demanding that Victorian treat, figgy pudding. True holiday treasures endure.
Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.