"GOD BLESS US EVERY ONE!" is the blessing offered by plucky little Tiny Tim in Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," now with two major and any number of smaller productions throughout the Bay Area.

To slant the blessing in a slightly more local way, Tiny Pat will point out that the area is blessed with two excellent productions of the classic yuletide tale -- a new (now in its third year) interpretation by San Francisco's ACT, and the now-decade-old perennial by Walnut Creek's Center Rep.

And since the staff here at One Hand Clapping is often asked to recommend a version of the story to see, much of Tuesday was spent viewing both productions.

       

The best answer, without regard to time or money, is to see both shows. They are very different versions of the same story, each remarkably satisfying in its own way.

ACT's is a highly stylized and extremely theatrical telling of the story. It would be a particularly good one to see if you have made "A Christmas Carol" an annual part of your seasonal celebration. James Carpenter is flat-out great as Scrooge. A tall, lanky man, he brings some athleticism to the role and presents a unique and captivating interpretation of the miser who discovers his inner Christmas spirit, following a torturous night of spirit visitors.

It is a memorable script, adapted by ACT artistic director Carey Perloff and Paul Walsh. It's a splashy, speedy show that, like its Center Rep counterpart, runs about two hours, with intermission. The show is heavy on special effects, many of them quite spooky, which may make the show a bit intense for younger children.

Of course, there are frightening elements to the story itself -- visits by spirits, the suffering of Jacob Marley and Scrooge's death-to-come. But in the Center Rep version, these are presented in a less intense manner.

Center Rep's adaptation, by Cynthia Caywood and Richard James, is a more straightforward telling of the tale (with enough smoke and special effects to keep it interesting). It's probably a better show for youngsters not familiar with the story, or those who don't get to the theater often, since the yarn is spun in a more accessible way.

From a personal point of view, what tilts me more toward the Center Rep production is the presentation of the ghosts, particularly Michael Ray Wisely's unique take on the Ghost of Christmas Present. From the time he emerges in an explosion of confetti from Scrooge's unoccupied bed, Wisely steals the show, and creates a character that will bring you back year after year. Wisely's performance, coupled with Ken Ruta's recorded narration and Kelly Tighe's delightfully detailed set, makes this production the champ.

But it's close, very close.