By Eric Marchese| Special to the NB Indy
South Coast Repertory’s annual staging of “A Christmas Carol” that runs through December 24 is, in Orange County, the definition of a holiday classic.
Only two actors – founding members Hal Landon, Jr., and Richard Doyle – have portrayed Scrooge, and countless other players have rotated in and out of the many remaining roles.
Music is a vital element of Jerry Patch’s tight, two-hour adaptation, and SCR’s version avoids the pitfall of portraying Dickens’ characters as one-dimensional. Patch’s script and director Hisa Takakuwa’s staging of it set the table. The superb cast then does the rest.
Setting the stage is a bustling London street scene that showcases nearly the entire cast. Scrooge, we’re told, is “a miser’s miser” known far and wide for his tightfisted stinginess and heartless ways.
We first see Scrooge (Doyle) at his moneylending office on Christmas Eve. Scrooge browbeats hapless clerk Bob Cratchit (Preston Maybank) and is visited by nephew Fred (Larry Bates), who invites him to Christmas dinner.
Scrooge chases away not just Fred, but also a caroling “ragamuffin” and two do-gooders (William Francis McGuire and Melody Butiu) seeking charitable donations to help the needy during the holidays.
In the early going, Doyle is plenty grumpy and every inch the curmudgeon. Even while knowing the story’s outcome and Scrooge’s drastic change of heart, we laugh at his expense, chuckling over how much his misanthropy is at odds with everyone around him.
Scrooge’s bedchamber, the story’s setting from the opening scenes on, is aptly gloomy. That effect is heightened by Drew Dalzell’s ghastly sound effects, which pave the way for the appearance of Marley’s Ghost.
Michael Manuel is wonderfully subdued in that role, making the character among the evening’s most memorable. The somber, no-nonsense spirit relates his woeful state to Scrooge without a trace of self-pity in his voice. That, of course, makes his plight all the more horrifying and pitiable.
It must be noted that SCR’s production is far less grim than the source novella, Patch judiciously planting pithy one-liners throughout and taking care to provide generous doses of humor to balance dark, more grim elements that might overpower younger viewers.
Jennifer Parsons’ Spirit of Christmas Past, who tells Scrooge she has “come to reawaken your humanity,” is a prime example of how the spirits offer Scrooge no emotional quarter. Patch’s text shows her as especially canny in the way she uses reverse psychology to cause Scrooge to begin to see the many errors of his ways.
As it is each year, this is a peerless production whose hallmark is lavish professionalism. Dwight Richard Odle’s costumes and Thomas Buderwitz’s scenic design are top-flight, and Donna and Tom Ruzika’s lighting designs create subtle emotional gradations.
Dalzell’s eerily effective sound design, which surrounds us with spectral echoes at crucial moments in the action, is a key element that elevates SCR’s staging. The production runs the emotional gamut from joy and elation to blind indifference to desolation. How can your heart not be moved by the joy “A Christmas Carol” brings?
Takakuwa’s staging is smoothly natural. Scenes like Scrooge visiting his younger self as an apprentice, a time in Scrooge’s life before he has soured on what it means to be part of the greater whole of humanity, carry a sense of enchantment that’s almost magical. The Christmas Day party at Fred’s home similarly glows with opulence, warmth and good cheer.
The use of music throughout is pervasive and effective, from the various instrumental passages to interludes where characters sing and dance. Credit Dennis Castellano’s musical direction, Dennis McCarthy’s compositions and arrangements, and Kelly Todd’s choreography for making this a seamless key element that’s all of a piece.
Takakuwa’s entire cast, from the primary players down to those in supporting roles, is first-rate, their characters fully developed as real people.
Maybank’s Cratchit is, in the early scenes, rather colorless, which allows the character to function as a sort of everyday working man. Neither timid nor meek, he’s also not an overt cheerleader for the happiness of the season, in later scenes personifying the loving family man, perfectly complemented by Elyse Mirto’s fetching Mrs. Cratchit.
The Spirit of Christmas Present can’t help his contagious jollity, and as with castmate Manuel, Richard Soto takes care to create more than a mere caricature. The character might be a phantom but, as with Marley’s Ghost, he displays presence of mind in all he says and does.
Edwardo Enrikez paints the young adult Marley as stodgy and fairly cold-hearted, unusual for someone in his 20s. Even while frosty around the eges, Tommy Beck’s Scrooge as Young Man is, by contrast, not yet tainted by his obsession with wealth. All the more important is his mutual attraction to Belle (Alicia Coca), who will become Scrooge’s sweetheart before his pursuit of riches drives her away. (Note the graveyard scene where the pair split up: Scrooge’s attire cannily resembles that of an undertaker.)
At the center of it all is Doyle. His Scrooge is the production’s focus, the character that holds it all together. When Scrooge visits his life from some four decades earlier, pay close attention to the way Doyle reacts to his younger self’s actions: The actor lets us see the ways in which Scrooge realizes things about kind, generous boss Fezziwig (McGuire who, as with many of his castmates, is triple- or quadruple-cast) and, by extension, about himself.
And as with the entirety of Takakuwa’s cast, Doyle’s portrayal is grounded in reality. The pitfall of reducing the story’s characters to one-dimensional stick figures is masterfully avoided, and that makes all the difference.
Many theatrical stagings of “A Christmas Carol” have come and gone, and many more are in our future, but few deliver Dickens’ wisdom about the human condition so effectively as what SCR has to give. The show’s concluding scene is, in word, delightful, packaging the proceedings with joyful wrapping and sending patrons home with a renewed spirit of the meaning of Christmas.
Segerstrom Stage, South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Through December 24. Running time: About two hours (includes intermission). Tickets: $35 to $89. Purchase / information: 714-708-5500, www.scr.org.