By Eric Marchese | Special to the NB Indy
Anyone who says “humbug!” to seeing “A Christmas Carol” at South Coast Repertory to celebrate the winter holidays ought to be boiled in his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.
Or, we could just nickname any such person “Scrooge.” For two generations, Hal Landon Jr. carried the starring role in SCR’s signature holiday production. Jerry Patch’s adaptation was first staged in 1980, and it didn’t take long for it to become a mass-appeal crowd-pleaser and an Orange County theater tradition.
For its 41st production, Landon has ceded the focal role to fellow founding member Richard Doyle – yet although a significant change, this is for all intents and purposes the same “Christmas Carol” fans have flocked to, returned to and grown to love over the decades.
In no way does our overfamiliarity diminish our enjoyment and appreciation of this always finely crafted show; if anything, that quality enhances the experience in seeing such a richly atmospheric, sumptuously staged production.
In her first time helming the classic show, director Hisa Takakuwa bases her staging on the one originated by John-David Keller. And that makes this edition a continuation of SCR’s long-standing tradition. Just think of Doyle as the new jewel in that crown.
Doyle and Landon’s Scrooges contrast starkly: Landon is craggy, lanky and gaunt, Doyle is squat, his flowing gray hair rimming a bald pate. On an emotional level, the differences are more subtle. Where Landon was a taciturn curmudgeon, Doyle’s façade is less opaque, the actor more willing to offer us a wider window into Scrooge’s feelings.
Not that his Scrooge isn’t bellicose. That belligerence is forceful, especially in the opening scenes, where a red-faced Scrooge huffs and puffs at Cratchit, saying that as the poor clerk’s cranky employer, he’s ill-used.
As comedic are Doyle’s near double-takes at the yuletide cheeriness surrounding him – yet shortly thereafter, Scrooge seeing himself as a young boy generates a sharply felt, palpable nostalgia.
Shifts of even more magnitude occur within Scrooge as he sees Christmases Yet-to-Come. Doyle’s voice reflects profundity as Scrooge realizes he’s being allowed to correct his past wrongs toward others – and Doyle underscores Ebenezer’s delirium over this as the out-of-body experience of a man who’s been remade through and through. We witness a man’s dawning realization that the Christmas spirit can and does work miracles.
Fueled by his joy toward his wife and children, Daniel Blinkoff’s Bob Cratchit glows from within (and in an ironic note, Blinkoff resembles a young Landon). Sharing Cratchit’s pleasant nature is Sol Castillo as Scrooge’s nephew Fred, ever willing to give others the benefit of the doubt – even someone as unreceptive as his sour uncle.
Michael Manuel paints Marley’s Ghost as genuinely bereft, in agony over having squandered his humanity while alive. Jennifer Parsons’s Spirit of Christmas Past is broadly gracious and accommodating, balancing gaiety and vehemence.
Richard Soto’s Spirit of Christmas Present gets a kick out of his own buoyancy and concurrent stream of lighthearted remarks. Soto also delivers an undercurrent of earnest solemnity, acidly observing to Scrooge that maybe it’s he who is worth less than all those he chides for holding Christmas in a special place in their hearts.
Paige Lindsey White characterizes Fred’s wife Sally as more outspoken and pragmatic than she’s typically portrayed, a welcome variation. Rosney Mauger’s Jacob Marley as a Young Man is already inured to life’s joys, a fact that irritates William Francis McGuire’s otherwise jovial Fezziwig.
Erika Schindele’s Belle is subtly demure, subtly beckoning to Ebenezer as a Young Man, her attempts to touch his heart ultimately in vain. Tommy Beck’s younger Scrooge is already cautiously tempering any hopes of romantic happiness, thus foreclosing that state as an outcome. Alternating in the role with Maddie Chung, Presley Coogan is a precious Tiny Tim.
Kelly Todd delivers crisp choreography, her work based on the original staging of Sylvia Turner. With 18 previous seasons as the show’s scenic designer, Thomas Buderwitz rings the proscenium and frames his period sets with panels that evoke Dickensian London etchings circa the 1840s.
The late Dwight Richard Odle’s costumes are elaborately ornate. They fairly glow in the 19th-century lamplight, a quality made all the more authentic by Donna and Tom Ruzika’s lighting work. Drew Dalzell’s sound scheme effectively uses reverb as well as clever effects such as background voices fading in and out.
The bustling London street scenes that bracket the story are as festive as the tale’s many apparitions are gloomy – contrasts that empower and energize “A Christmas Carol.” A sly SCR in-joke comes in the form of younger Scrooge and Marley’s discussions about “the Keller account,” a nod to original director John-David Keller.
Memorable moments abound, including Scrooge’s swirling, positively mind-blowing graveyard-to-bedchamber tumble. Landon’s beloved late-in-the-play top hat gimmick has been replaced with something new which, while not as showy, may grow in our estimation as it starts to build a new tradition.
Dickens’ 1843 literary masterpiece was, of course, a holiday ghost story in which Christmas themes like the issue of spiritual redemption were brought into focus by the presence of specters.
The story has it all, from its poignance and laughs to a penetrating look that forces readers to reflect upon the nature of humanity.
SCR’s version has all these qualities and more. As it has been for 41 years, it’s a gem, first-rate all the way.
Segerstrom Stage, South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Through December 26. Running time: About two hours (including intermission). Tickets: $42 to $84. Purchase/information: 714-708-5500, www.scr.org. (Note: The show is intended for audience members age six and up, and children under six will not be admitted.) Vaccination verification or recent covid tests required of most audience members, and facemasks are required in the theater. Visit the SCR website for details.