There’s something to be said for bucking a trend, especially one that’s as deeply ingrained as “A Christmas Carol.”
The Aurora Fox’s regional premiere of “Red Ranger Calling: A Guaranteed True Christmas Story” is a refreshing offering in an otherwise repetitive holiday theater season, one that includes seven productions of Charles Dickens’ story on stages across the Denver metro area. Based on the children’s book by cartoonist Berkeley Breathed, “Ranger” is a dynamic alternative; the musical combines the wry feel of its source material with a catchy score and compelling performances.
The play offers some familiar elements, most notably a Scroogish protagonist who learns the true meaning of Christmas in the course of the story. But by drawing faithfully from Breathed’s text and the aesthetics of his artwork, the Fox offers a new take on an old message, a story that seems new despite its well-worn themes and plot twists.
Originally adapted by the Book-It Repertory Theatre Company in Seattle, “Ranger” stays true to the plot line of Breathed’s book, which tells the story of his father, dubbed “Red” for the fiery color of his hair. The play takes place in 1939, when 9-year-old Red, played by Bryce Foster, is sent to spend Christmas with his Aunt Vy (Gina Schuh-Turner) on Vashon Island off the coast of Seattle. The setting couldn’t be less seasonal: steady rainfall is the substitute for snow, the constantly cloudy skies bear no traces of Santa’s sled.
The decidedly unfestive environment is only the beginning of Red’s holiday woes. Caught in the economic straits of the Great Depression, Red’s family can’t afford to buy him a “Red Ranger” bicycle, a highly prized gift tied to the child’s fantastical alter-ego as a space hero, a galactic cowboy who battles “space Nazis” and comic book baddies.
Red’s Scrooge-like tendencies start to turn when he hears of an aged shut-in named Saunder Clos, an old man who lives in an isolated lighthouse and who is rumored to secretly be Santa Claus. After spotting a pointy-eared character in town who looks suspiciously like an elf (Steven Burge), Red ventures into Clos’ sealocked lair with his dog Amelia, a stuffed animal puppeteered by Sophia Johnson-Grimes. He finds an old man with a snow-white beard in Clos (Marlin May), a frail character surrounded by a coterie of elvish helpers who seems to have lost faith in the holiday.
Red challenges Clos’ (now retired) role as Father Christmas, asking for the bicycle that’s become such a fervent wish.
The story echoes parts of “A Christmas Carol,” as well as comic themes from the Fox’s previous holiday show, “A Christmas Story.” But the company’s careful attention in staying true to the spirit and dynamics of Book-It’s original production helps the show stand out. Company members from Seattle traveled to Aurora to offer specific instructions about the play’s unique narrative style, a kind of soliloquy shared among multiple cast members at one time.
Considering the density of Breathed’s text, the cast pulls off the unique kind of narration impressively.
The narration is constantly and seamlessly split between Bryce and the rest of the cast. As the lead, Bryce juggles his role as a grumpy youngster, a lead singer and a third-person voice. In her role as Aunt Vy, Schuh-Turner also juggles the demands of narrator and actress. Burge is his reliably energetic self in his role as Turnip, and May brings a grizzled authenticity to his performance as Clos.
The wry tone of Breathed’s text finds a complement in Myra Platt and Edd Key’s musical adaptations. Performed by a quartet on the Fox stage, the dynamic score echoes the sounds of the era; Rebekah Lancaster, Paul Page and other chorus members gather around a vintage microphone for “The Legend Of,” for example.
Director Brenda Cook Ritenour, sound designer El Armstrong and scenic and lighting designer Charles Packard put Breathed’s visual stamp on the entire production. With a screen bearing constant images from the original book and with scenery that bears the imprint of the “Bloom County” cartoonist’s pen, the live action echoes its visual roots.
The transition from page to stage isn’t always perfect. Some moments in a dream sequence that feature a gang of bicycle riders tend to lag a bit, for example. Still, considering the show has a relatively short run time, such moments are minimal. The majority of the onstage action is dynamic and refreshing, and it serves as a relief to the crowd of Scrooges taking the stage elsewhere in the area.
Three and a half stars out of four.
“Red Ranger Came Calling: A Guaranteed True Christmas Story” runs until Dec. 19 at the Aurora Fox Arts Center, 9900 E. Colfax Ave. Tickets start at $24. For more information, call 303-739-1970 or visit www.aurorafox.org.