By Eric Marchese | Special to the NB Indy
Some audiences swear that South Coast Repertory’s annual production of “A Christmas Carol” is the same from year to year, while others insist each staging is unique.
Both assertions are, in fact, correct. Take this year’s version, which bolsters our memories of past SCR stagings of the Charles Dickens classic while building new ones. The result is worthy of the company’s milestone 60th season.
Jerry Patch’s reliable adaptation opens with a London street scene on Christmas Eve, bustling with pre-Christmas activity and blanketed with snowfall. From there, it zeroes in on Ebenezer Scrooge (Richard Doyle), he of a heart so black and narrow he has only one concern: money.
Directed by Hisa Takakuwa, this is a colorful and well-detailed staging sprinkled with well-placed laughs, yet dark wherever needed – which is often. We can delight in the show’s grim humor, as when our first glimpse of the future is of three bored moneychangers standing around. One of them says “I thought he’d never die,” and you just know he’s referring to Scrooge.
Much of the dialogue in Patch’s script is lifted directly from Dickens’ novel, as when Scrooge is roundly described as “odious, stingy and unfeeling,” while Patch has a character rudely chuckle that Scrooge “never mixes business with sentiment – or sentiment with anything.”
While Preston Maybank’s Bob Cratchit indeed toadies to Scrooge, he’s different when away from servitude – uninhibited, and glowing with relaxed joy while around his wife and children.
Stage and TV veteran Bo Foxworth carries four of the show’s roles, at first as a do-gooder who, along with Diana Burbano, seeks donations for those in need during the holidays. But, as Scrooge growls, helping others “is not my business.”
And yet, Patch wisely clarifies that at the start of his career, Scrooge (Tommy Beck) still has enough heart and sense of decency to go easy on a debtor on Christmas Eve.
It’s his colleague and future partner Marley (Eduardo Enrikez) who urges Scrooge, for his own good and to enrich his purse, to forget sentiment and get tough.
The same scene adds further irony: Beck’s young adult Scrooge confesses to Belle (Alicia Coca) that he’s an awful dancer – and he proves clumsily, comically true to his word.
Steering clear of schmaltz, Takakuwa masterfully infuses true warmth into, and elicits our affection for, Dickens’ characters, every one.
Maybank’s Cratchit is down to earth and speaks with an unaffected, equally pleasing Cockney dialect. His is a finely-etched, well-delineated portrayal with more than sufficient emotional depth.
Foxworth’s primary role of the evening is as Fezziwig, who ran the office where Scrooge was apprenticed – the kind of fun-loving, generous boss Scrooge has (so far) never been. Foxworth’s persona is jovial, yet steeled in the belief that life exists to be enjoyed – and that to not make the most of life is a crime.
Michael Manuel is a melancholy, woebegone Jacob Marley’s Ghost, reflected by his spectral green visage and reverberating voice. Jennifer Parsons brings a sense of magical fantasy to the role of The Spirit of Christmas Past, defining the phantom’s demeanor with an ironic, aptly brittle good cheer. Richard Soto’s Spirit of Christmas Present is at first almost deliriously happy yet, in his latter scenes, brings the jovial phantasm much-needed gravitas.
Beck’s young adult Scrooge is endearingly awkward, allowing us to warm up to him right along with Belle. Coca imbues Scrooge’s lady love with touches of Cockney – both in dialect and in pragmatism. By avoiding bathos, her reading is all the more potent.
Elyse Mirto is a genuinely warm and gracious yet vibrant Mrs. Cratchit. Kelsey Bray exudes the genuine warmth felt by beloved sister Fan toward the childhood Ebenezer, the only person who loves him. Eduardo Enrikez paints the graverobber Old Joe as a pirate-style scoundrel.
Larry Bates’ Fred is a polished, well-spoken young adult always willing to give his ever-grouchy uncle the benefit of the doubt. He clearly aches for and wants the old geezer’s company both during Christmas and year-round, too.
The story’s arc, of course, is the personality and temperament of Scrooge – so, of course, all eyes are on Doyle throughout. This curmudgeonly Scrooge clings to his sour outlook like a life preserver – for example, Doyle’s obdurate miser, even while seeing his younger self, refuses to admit his love for Belle.
Watch Scrooge, though, as his bluster gives way to inherent cowardice while he’s alone amongst the spirits. And dig his delirium as he realizes he’s been given a second chance to right a lifetime of wrongs – someone chastened and humble, with a newfound wisdom that’s touching.
To the casual observer, Scrooge may seem a narrowly defined role. Doyle, though, gives even the silliest lines the ring of truth, and don’t ever, for a second, doubt his range.
Dickens’ story, and SCR’s version of it, delivers a vision of industrial England long gone, yet one that offers lessons still applicable and relevant today. Dialect coach David Nevell has done his work and gotten solid results with the fine cast. As always, scenes of characters singing and dancing are an integral part of SCR’s production, and Patch’s durable script condenses things down to the basics, with some length added back in via the use of the show’s songs and dance interludes.
In addition to its literary pedigree, SCR’s production is a feast for the eyes and ears, thanks to Thomas Buderwitz’s scenic design, Dwight Richard Odle’s period-evocative costumes (augmented by those of Amy Hutto), Donna and Tom Ruzika’s lighting, Drew Dalzell’s sound, Dennis McCarthy’s original compositions, Sylvia Turner and Kelly Todd’s choreography, and the often dazzling (yet uncredited) special effects. So, come to SCR and enjoy this holiday feast.
Segerstrom Stage, South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Through Dec. 24. Running time: About two hours (including intermission). Tickets: $36 to $94. Purchase / information: 714-708-5500, www.scr.org.