After watching South Coast Repertory's "A Christmas Carol" usher in the holiday season for the past 32 years, it was singularly gratifying to see my (almost) 6-year-old granddaughter enraptured by her first visit to the local tradition.
Little Riley Mills was literally on the edge of her seat during SCR's 33rd annual rendition of the beloved Charles Dickens story, adapted for the stage back in 1980 by former SCR member Jerry Patch for what originally was intended as a one-shot production.
"I liked the ghosts," she confided after the show, "except the last one" (the wordless spirit of Christmas yet-to-come who eerily shows Scrooge what might be if he doesn't change his ways). And, of course, she enjoyed Hal Landon Jr.'s Ebenezer Scrooge, a role he's been playing since the show's inception.
Landon is, as always, pitch-perfect as the character described in the program as "a grasping, covetous old man," a "miser's miser" in the words of the old cider salesman Joe (Art Koustik, like Landon, an SCR founding artist). His near-demonic denouncement of the holiday in the play's early moments is beautifully contrasted with his overflowing exuberance after his "spiritual" visits.
Director John-David Keller, who has staged every incarnation of the classic at SCR, doubles delightfully as Mr. Fezziwig, Scrooge's early employer, who presides gleefully at the company Christmas party, aided by his equally ebullient wife, played by Karen Hensel.
This scene, guided by the Spirit of Christmas Past (the excellent Richard Doyle, another founding artist), sets up the moment when Scrooge (stoutly played as a young man by Christian Barillas) loses the first love of his life (a splendid Erika Whalen) because of his dedication to business.
A high point of every "Christmas Carol" is its depiction of the life of Scrooge's browbeaten clerk, Bob Cratchit, and his family, bottom feeders in 19th-century London. Daniel Blinkoff, in his 10th straight outing as Cratchit, brings a humbling warmth and humanity to his role, well contrasted by Jennifer Parsons (in her ninth year) as his outspoken wife. The children, double cast, were delightfully animated at Saturday's evening preview.
Timothy Landfield, another SCR veteran, enriches the role of the Spirit of Christmas Present with his overflowing good cheer, tempered by some harsh realities. Gregg Daniel, in his third outing as the chain-rattling ghost of Scrooge's old partner Jacob Marley, brings a note of savage terror to the proceedings.
William Francis McGuire returns as Scrooge's upbeat nephew and lively party host, while Ann Marie Lee doubles nicely as his wife and a street toy merchant. Gage Larkin and Sebastian Naranjo share the role of the "turkey boy" who fetches Scrooge's Christmas bird.
(My son Tim played that part in the 1984 production, as I noted to Riley when the boy appeared.)
What is most impressive about "Christmas Carol," apart from the performances, is how swiftly the settings, designed by Tom Buderwitz, are whisked on and off stage. Costume designer Dwight Richard Odle and lighting designers Donna and Tom Ruzika have, like Landon and Keller, been involved in every annual production.
"A Christmas Carol" has imparted its message of warmth and humanity gloriously to SCR's audiences for 33 years and shows no sign of slowing down as new playgoers — like my granddaughter Riley — discover the ageless classic.
Also on stage
Vanguard University opens its production of another classic, "Little Women," this weekend in the school's Lyceum Theater, under the direction of Kevin Slay. The stage version of the Louisa May Alcott novel will be presented at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays until Dec. 9. Call (714) 668-6145 for ticket information.
Also opening this weekend is Orange Coast College's annual "An Old-Fashioned Christmas Melodrama and Ice Cream Social," directed by Rick Golson, in the college's Drama Lab Theatre. Performances are 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:30 through Dec. 16. Reservations are taken at (714) 432-4880.
TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Independent.
If You Go
What: "A Christmas Carol"
Where: South Coast Repertory, Segerstrom Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays; noon and 4 p.m. Sundays until Dec. 24
Cost: $20 to $63
Information: (714) 708-5555