I opened my presents early. Last weekend I saw not one but two Christmas stage offerings. ACT's 37th revival of A Christmas Carol delivers a traditional take on Ebenezer Scrooge's redemption. Just around the corner at the 5th Avenue, there's Elf: The Musical, New York's most secular contribution to the holiday since Macy's turned a Thanksgiving parade into the starter pistol for Christmas shopping frenzy.
A CHRISTMAS CAROL ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., 292-7676, acttheatre.org. $27-55. Ends Dec. 30.
ELF: THE MUSICAL 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., 625-1900, 5thavenue.org. $15-$75. Ends Dec. 21.
While everyone over age 5 knows the Charles Dickens story, ACT is hardly coasting in this production, directed by John Langs. Having seen everyone from Mr. Magoo and Patrick Stewart to Jim Carrey play the infamous curmudgeon, I honestly don't think I've ever seen it done as well as by Jeff Steitzer, whose every "Bah, humbug" bears the sting of a real tongue-lashing. (R. Hamilton Wright shares the role in alternating performances.) As the reason for his bitterness is made clear by the visiting spirits (Sylvie Davidson and Leslie Law make heartwarming Ghosts of Christmases Past and Present), Scrooge's turnaround becomes all the more magical. And if that performance isn't enough to melt your heart, just watch Galen Joseph Osier's Bob Cratchit grieve for his lost son, Tiny Tim. A concession stand providing Kleenex would mop up here.
Two blocks away, they're having none of that Victorian sentimentality. Based on the hit 2003 Will Ferrell film, Elf: The Musical has a moral at its juicy nougat core, but it's so papered over with Christmas wrap, holiday cheer, and bustling Broadway glitz that any message becomes ancillary to the unfolding extravaganza.
As you'll recall from the movie, Buddy (Matt Owen) is raised as an elf after accidentally crawling into Santa's bag as an infant. Once Buddy learns he's human, Santa sets him to find his birth dad in New York, only to discover that Papa (Allen Fitzpatrick) doesn't believe in Santa and has no Christmas spirit or time for those who do.
It's a fish-out-of-water comedy that gets many of its yuks (and there are plenty) from Buddy's naiveté and facility with all things Christmas. He meets and falls in love with an ingenue (Kendra Kassebaum) who doesn't believe in Christmas but does believe that Buddy has a heart of gold. Hilarity and hijinks ensue, abetted by a busy and tuneful score. (The book is by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin; Matthew Sklar composed the music, with lyrics by Chad Beguelin. Eric Ankrim directs the mostly local cast.)
Amid the mayhem and bombast, there's nearly as much cheese as cheer in this two-hour romp, which debuted on Broadway two years ago and returned there last month. Andy Grobengieser leads the turn-on-a-dime orchestra. A whip-smart supporting ensemble helps Buddy joke, sing, tap-dance, and even soft-shoe his way into the hearts of his disbelieving family.
So whether you like your Xmas old-school or new, there's something under the tree for theater lovers of every stripe.