When it comes to keeping Christmas, old Eb Scrooge may have the longevity, but the Hale Center Theater in South Salt Lake does it with style and grace.

Over the past six years, the Hales (and the Swensons and Dietleins) have built their annual "A Christmas Carol" outing into a critic-proof hit.A London barrister might term any kind of review on this show "a moot point." The Hale Center Theater does such a consistently first-rate job, that even before "A Christmas Carol" opens, virtually every one of the evening performances are sold out.

If you're lucky, you might be able to procure tickets for some of the matinees (some Fridays and most Saturdays), or you could mill around in the parking lot - possibly run the risk of getting arrested for loitering - and see if there are any "no-shows," folks who have purchased tickets in advance, then don't show up.

There's a very good reason, of course, that HCT's version of the classic Dickens tale is standing room only every year.

It's the best.

Now, if I really believed I had some kind of clout, I could trash the show, maybe cause some ticket-holders to cancel their reservations, thereby freeing up some seats for those anxious people who tarried in ordering their tickets.

But I can't do that.

It's almost impossible to find fault with a show this warm and wonderful. The intimate theater-in-the-round setting draws you into the life and times of Ebenezer Scrooge and his neighbors in Cheapside, England.

When the townspeople stream in, caroling around the lamppost, you're immediately caught up in the lives of Scrooge, the Cratchits and the Fezziwigs.

We know that Scrooge, despite his pile of tarnished money, is wallowing in the dregs of poverty in his treatment of his fellow man. And the Cratchits' wealth of love and closeness belie their simple financial circumstances.

Scrooge may have ledgers full of dollar signs and figures, but we know which family is truly rich.

The show, as usual, is double-cast - except for the central role of Ebenezer Scrooge.

How Richard Wilkins does this night after night - sometimes three performances on Saturdays - boggles the mind. The role is demanding, and Wilkins never disappoints. My guess is that, over the years, Wilkins has developed into a sort of seasonal Jekyll and Hyde - a brilliant lawyer by day and Scrooge personified by night.

And it helps, of course, that he is surrounded by a cast of excellent supporting actors.

This year's production was directed by John and Tamara Adams, who have made some subtle changes in the presentation. In previous seasons, the scene in which the Spirit of Christmas Future shows Scrooge the inside of a Soho pawn shop, where a charwoman, laundress and undertaker are anxiously selling the items they've taken from Scrooge's home after his demise, has been rather dark, but the Adamses have given it a lighter edge this year.

Bob Bedore, fight choreographer for the show (who also appears as Young Scrooge in half of the performances), has staged the fisticuff scene between Young Scrooge and his friend Dick Wilkins with more of a rough-and-tumble frolic approach than a serious fight.

On opening night, there was one minor lighting snafu when the house lights came up and lit the entire theater, instead of focusing on the action.

The costumes, scenery and other technical aspects of the production are all top-notch.

About the only thing the Hale Center Theater could do to improve on this annual SRO production would be to knock out another wall and add more seats, or extend the run - like opening it about mid-July instead of November.