By Russ Bickerstaff   Published Nov 24, 2004 at 5:11 AM

{image1} The Milwaukee Rep's production of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" returns to the Pabst Theater for the holiday season and like every year, thousands will flood the historic hall to see Ebenezer Scrooge and his close encounters with Christmas' past, present and future.

The most prominent change this year is the lead actor. Lee E. Ernst plays Scrooge, adding a unique flavor. (Jonathan Gilard Daly played the role for four straight years, after James Pickering held it for nine of the 10 previous years. Daniel Mooney was Scrooge for seven straight years before that!) In the opening act, his performance recalls the cheerful darkness of his work in the title role of "Richard III" last season. And his impish glee at the end recalls his playfulness in the lead role of "The Foreigner."

Ernst plays Scrooge with a heart that goes far beyond the traditionally two-dimensional nature of the character. At the beginning, we see an old man who is villainously stingy, but not out of inherent evilness. He's exhausted -- carrying the surly weight of lost love and pleasure for decades. This exhaustion is apparent in Ernst's every movement. The joy he gets from his wicked heartlessness is so deep it makes his transformation at the end all the more believable.

Ernst's performance plays well against the rest of the cast. The weariness of old Scrooge at the beginning is echoed in the appearance of the Ghost of Christmas Future near the end. Fabio Pires is an older, more gaunt and wraith-like version of Scrooge. He plays the role as though he were Scrooge advanced to such an old age, so weary and jaded that he no longer has the energy to even speak. There is a dark, ritualistic determination in his silence that makes Christmas Future much darker than it might have seemed in past performances.

In a similarly impressive performance, Mark Corkins returns to "A Christmas Carol" playing Scrooge's old business partner Jacob Marley. Built like a linebacker, Corkins cuts a menacing figure as the phantom ghost of Marley warning Scrooge of the ensuing parade of spectral visitations. Corkins plays the role like a giant duty-bound to the chains of perpetual torture in the afterlife. Living in Christmas Past, Corkins is a devil in a Dickensian business suit as he begins the corruption of young Scrooge, fostering a soulless pursuit of money.

Laura Gordon contributes to this outstanding production as Scrooge's comically oppressed domestic servant Mrs. Dilber, the irrepressibly jubilant Mrs. Fezziwig and other smaller roles. Her performance is captivating, big roles or small.

In its second season with the new set and fresh period costuming, the production seems to be running quite a bit more smoothly than it was last year. While there are still a few moments when the size of the production seems to overwhelm individual performances, things appear to be much better orchestrated.

The direction of Judy Berdan helped quite a bit because she has the experience of stage manager on "A Christmas Carol" for a number of years before. The technical perspective that stage management offers provides her a greater understanding of the whole production.

Those wishing to see a little something extra may want to go early and gather into the neighboring Patti and Jay Baker Theater Complex 45 minutes prior to the show. Through the Dec. 2 performance, various local choirs will perform around the piano under the vast rotunda of the complex. The acoustics are spectacular, with 10 different groups singing on different nights ranging in vocal styles from the Milwaukee Children's Choir to the Wilsonaires Senior Chorus.

The Milwaukee Rep's "A Christmas Carol" plays now through Dec. 26 at the Pabst Theater. Tickets range in price from $11-$58.50 and can be purchased in advance by calling the box office at (414) 224-9490.