A Christmas Carol  at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre. COURTESY MRT
A Christmas Carol at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre. COURTESY MRT

LOWELL -- Every now and then, I'll listen to a favorite album, or pick up a well-worn book, and think how nice it would be to experience it again for the first time.

While watching "A Christmas Carol" at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre this past weekend, I had the same feeling. I suspect others who attend the show will feel similarly.

We've digested so many versions of this tale over the years that we're intimately familiar with each detail. Marley's ghost. Rattling chains. Tiny Tim. The three spirits. It's like an old song we know every note to.

From Charles Dickens' original 1843 novella, which most of us read in high school, to the 1951 film "Scrooge," to the modern-day telling starring Bill Murray, to "The Muppets Christmas Carol," there is seemingly a new adaptation for each generation. Even the less literary among us are at least familiar with Scrooge McDuck.

Yet, we return to the story again every few years to see it told in a new style.

The reasons are plenty. Upon its release, Dickens' story revived an interest in Christmas that has never waned. It also contained an appealing message of redemption -- the notion that you can change the course of your life over one night -- that resonates with audiences to this day.

This new version at the MRT is built around details of live readings of "A Christmas Carol" that Dickens himself performed after publishing his story. Playing Dickens, the actor Joel Colodner asks the audience to picture itself at a small social party, having gathered around the fire to hear the famed author spin a yarn.


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He then performs what is essentially a one-man show, embodying each character with thunderous vigor.

Lowell audiences will recognize Colodner as the stuffy arts reporter from last year's holiday production of the Ted Williams play "Going to See the Kid." He does a fine job here conveying the solemnity of the source material, while finding humor in the interactions between Ebenezer Scrooge and those who can't help but marvel at his miserly gloom.

What makes this production stand out is the music. The play is scored live on stage by two musicians -- Rebecca White and Nathan Leigh -- who deliver plaintive renditions of Christmas standards on vocals, acoustic guitar, clarinet, organ and trumpet.

By including songs from Dickens' era, such as "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," director Megan Sandberg-Zakian authentically captures the beauty of Christmas in mid-19th-century London. The musicians also bring some of the more brutal scenes to life with a series of eerie sound effects, such as a horror-movie wail achieved by Leigh sliding a violin bow across the edge of a cymbal.

Interestingly, Dickens' famed story may have been inspired by a visit he made to Lowell in 1842. In the publicity materials for the play, the MRT draws attention to a 2013 study by a Boston University professor and student that argues that some of the most memorable elements of "A Christmas Carol" were lifted from stories written by Lowell mill girls that Dickens read after visiting the city.

"It's been really exciting and moving to read about Dickens' visits to Lowell," said Sandberg-Zakian. "I think he would approve of the simplicity and sincerity of our production."

"A Christmas Carol" runs through Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 East Merrimack St., Lowell. For tickets, visit www.mrt.org or call 978-654-4678.