Raleigh Memorial Auditorium was packed to the rafters, and really rocking, Saturday night as the latest edition of Theatre in the Park executive and artistic director Ira David Wood III’s marvelous musical version of A Christmas Carol unfolded. Even after 29 years, the snippets of vintage vaudeville routines that David Wood & Company perform with knee dips and rim shots, and the timely topical references that Wood adds every year to enliven the proceedings, proved to be a winning formula to delight children of all ages. The final curtain catapulted the audience to its feet, as one, for a lengthy standing ovation.

As always, the main attraction of A Christmas Carol is the opportunity to witness David Wood’s outrageous antics as English novelist Charles Dickens misanthropic old miser, Ebenezer Scrooge. Scrooge loves only money and the making of money. He hates the cheerfulness and bonhomie of the Christmas season and is completely devoid of the Milk of Human Kindness until an eerie late-night visitation. On Christmas Eve, the ghost of his former partner, Jacob Marley (David McNeill Henderson), and the Ghost of Christmas Past (Taylor Fleming), the Ghost of Christmas Present (John Shearer) and his Elf (Frank Therialt), and the Ghost of Christmas Future (Mike Raab) invade Scrooge’s cold and clammy bedroom, and their supernatural visitation warms his icy heart and transforms the malicious old skinflint into a veritable Father Christmas.

Wood’s rubber-legged performance not only pushes the edge of the comic envelope; it ditches the customary envelope and creates a madcap character that can morph into Groucho Marx or Elvis Presley in the blink of an eye. These temporary transformations are hilarious, but it is Scrooge’s ultimate acquisition of the Christmas spirit against all odds that leaves audience members laughing through their tears.

David Henderson is highly amusing as Jacob Marley, and tiny Taylor Fleming delivers a polished grown-up performance as the Ghost of Christmas Past. John Shearer is a jolly giant and a magnificent singer as the Ghost of Christmas Present, and Mike Raab and his puppet Claykins the acid-tongued vulture are a scream as the Ghost of Christmas Future.

Scotty Cherryholmes is delightful as the Lamplighter, who doubles as the show’s narrator; David Moore repeats the role of Scrooge’s horribly underpaid and much-abused clerk, Bob Cratchit, with more brio every year; and little Bailey Griffin is simply wonderful as poor, crippled Tiny Tim.

Susan Durham-Lozaw contributes a nicely polished comic cameo as the feisty Mrs. Cratchit; Alan Seales and Sarah Simons make a handsome and charming couple as Scrooge’s earnest nephew Fred and his giggly wife; and A Christmas Carol choreographer Matthew-Jason Willis and Lindsay Leb add a beautiful ballet sequence as Young Scrooge and his childhood sweetheart, Laura.

Willis also puts new pizzazz into the show’s production numbers. The Chimney Sweeps (Crissy Blake, Bree Branker, Lindsay Leb, Jennifer Rowell, Kaitlin Szulik, and Matthew-Jason Willis) and the Marlettes (Berklee Bowers, Christine Gardenhire, Maggie Mial, and Kaitlin Szulik) all dance up a storm. And Joe Farrell, Ruffin Hicks, Donna P. Parker, Frank Therialt, and Henry Young all acquit themselves well in minor roles.

Rita Riggs’ brand-new costumes for Scrooge are one of the show’s visual highlights. And the exceptional work behind the scenes of technical director Tim Ruffin, costume supervisor Staf Maus, lighting designers Andrea Sumner and Thomas Mauney, and sound designer Jonathan Parke also deserves a special round of applause.

Musical director Diane Petteway and veteran musicians Dave Adams, Tom Bryan, Ed Butler, Lee Davis, Jan Johansson, Rodney Marsh, Bernie Petteway, and Hugh Robertson really rock the house with their up-tempo accompaniment. Indeed, much of the audience stayed on, well after the final curtain, while the band played on at a feverish pace.

A Christmas Carol, which will celebrate its 30th birthday in December 2004, is a Triangle tradition. Indeed, the Christmas season is not complete for many local families without a trip to Raleigh Memorial Auditorium to watch David Wood & Company cut the fool with his side-splitting new musical version of Charles Dickens’ classic 1843 Christmas story. Don’t miss it.

Theatre in the Park presents A Christmas Carol Friday, Dec. 12, at 7 p.m.; Saturday, Dec. 13, at 2 and 7 p.m.; Sunday, Dec. 14, at 2 p.m.; and Monday-Wednesday, Dec. 15-17, at 7 p.m. in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium in the BTI Center for the Performing Arts, 1 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $12-$55. BTI Box Office: (919) 831-6060; Ticketmaster: 919/834-4000 or http://www.ticketmaster.com/venue/115203. TIP: http://theatreinthepark.com/frames/frame_a_christmas_carol.html [inactive 3/04] . Ira David Wood III: http://theatreinthepark.com/frames/frame_ira_david_wood_iii.html [inactive 3/04] . A Christmas Carol (via Online Literature Library): http://www.literature.org/authors/dickens-charles/christmas-carol/ [inactive 6/04]. Dickens on the Web (by David A. Perdue): http://www.fidnet.com/~dap1955/dickens/dickens_web.html.