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BWW Review: South Coast Rep's 41st Annual Production of A CHRISTMAS CAROL Remains Enchanting

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So Cal's other, less star-studded production of the Dickens classic is a lively endeavor in its own right.

BWW Review: South Coast Rep's 41st Annual Production of A CHRISTMAS CAROL Remains Enchanting
Richard Doyle

While most Southern California theatergoers are likely more aware of the "big deal," direct-from-Broadway production of Charles Dickens' classic A CHRISTMAS CAROL now playing in Los Angeles featuring big star names in its roster, many should not necessarily bypass the other, less star-studded mounting now entertaining audiences in Orange County---that's more subtle in its grandeur, but still just as enchanting and timeless at its core.

Despite the dueling productions located just an hour apart, Costa Mesa's Tony Award-winning South Coast Repertory is forging ahead with the return of its own annual production---its 41st---situated in the arguably more intimate Segerstrom Stage through December 26, 2021.

SCR's 2021 iteration of its annual production once again utilizes the script adapted by Jerry Patch, the superbly vintage scenic designs by Thomas Buderwitz, the opulent costumes by Dwight Richard Odle, and the lighting designs by Donna and Tom Ruzika. This time, though, the production is now being helmed by Hisa Takakuwa (based on the original staging by her predecessor John-David Keller).

Another significant change for this year's revisit to (arguably) Dickens' most famous work is in the role of hum-bug-spouting Ebenezer Scrooge, now being performed by SCR founding artist Richard Doyle---who assumes the role from Hal Landon, Jr., the actor that has previously performed the miser at SCR's annual production for 40 continuous years.

As Scrooge, Doyle's take on one of literature's most famous grumps amps up the curmudgeonly persona with every grunt, tirade, and "bah humbug" he utters, making for a delightful contrast later when the character makes a complete 180 after learning some much-needed life lessons from a bunch of visiting ghosts. Doyle himself has had a 36-year stint in SCR's annual Dickensian visits, and this promotion is a well-earned, and very well-acted one.

BWW Review: South Coast Rep's 41st Annual Production of A CHRISTMAS CAROL Remains Enchanting
Sol Castillo, Richard Doyle

My last visit to SCR's live stage version of this story has been, perhaps, more than a decade ago, and in seeing it again now, it continues to be a production that can be universally enjoyed by generations---a familiar story told in a classic yet approachable way. Yes, from its opening Wassail scenes of Victorian London life to its celebratory, oh-so-happy holiday ending, the familiar tale in A CHRISTMAS CAROL remains lively and engaging on SCR's stage, even without the temptation of introducing some modern-era consciousness or theatrics to the proceedings (the use of color-blind casting, though, is very much appreciated).

While not specifically a musical, the show does include musical elements, highlighted by sprinkled songs sung by cast members as well as choreographed moments staged by Kelly Todd, based on original movements devised by Sylvia Turner.

The story itself, of course, focuses on the transformation and evolution of Ebenezer Scrooge, and how much of this transformation benefits not only his life but the life of others---a Dickens story arc that has been such a proven success that modern mediums have usurped and repurposed it in various ways since the novella was first published in 1864.

Scrooge---an often angry aging man obsessed solely with profits over people---is visited on Christmas Eve by the ghost of his dead former partner Jacob Marley (Michael Manuel) who warns him to change his miserly ways or else suffer the same fate: carrying heavy chains for eternity as a pained, wandering spirit.

Naturally, Scrooge refuses to believe---that is, until he gets overnight visits from three spirits that help illuminate his life for him: The Spirit of Christmas Past (Jennifer Parsons), who shows Scrooge his early mistakes and regrets while reminding him of the gentler man he used to be; The Spirit of Christmas Present (Richard Soto), who shows him which people in his life he's hurting deeply---which include his hardworking employee Bob Cratchit (Daniel Blinkoff) and his wife (Tamlyn Tomita) and children, and his own nephew Fred (Sol Castillo), the only surviving member of his biological family. And, finally, Scrooge meets with the Spirit of Christmas Yet-To-Come, who gives him a preview of future events should he resists changing his ways.

It's no spoiler to say that the story sees Scrooge eventually earning his epiphany, and so A CHRISTMAS CAROL achieves its happy ending---which means joy for its main character and those in his periphery, and, by extension, an infectious festive holiday feeling shared with an audience.

For the young ones seeing A CHRISTMAS CAROL as their first ever experience seeing a live, straight stage play, this will feel like a palatable introduction to the wonders of theatrical magic: the interplay of actors with their creatively conjured surroundings and their donned gay apparel, the palpable emotions expressed by these humans, and, of course, the wonder of stage craft when costumes dazzle, when sets transform instantly, and when ghosts appear out of wardrobes, beds, and footlockers. For us repeat viewers on the other hand, seeing the play again will further plunge us into the holiday spirit.

Sure, it's definitely possible to absorb this story and its emotional take-aways from home via its accessible (and easily streamable) film and TV adaptations, but nothing beats experiencing holiday cheer as an audience member at a live production of this play, even one that you've probably seen more than once before. Even now, still in the middle of an ongoing pandemic, a shared, communal experience like live theater is worth celebrating (masked and vaccinated, preferably).

My only gripe, though, has to be in the way each ghost is "introduced" which hasn't really evolved much since I last saw the production many, many years ago. Sure, it involves some clever stage tricks for sure, but most of us are already pre-expecting each ghost's arrival after having known this story all our lives. I think part of me wishes each appearance of a new ghost is conceived differently or more, uh, magic-ized. It's a minor, personal wish only because the utilized "magic" is something I've seen before (and, therefore, saw coming).

BWW Review: South Coast Rep's 41st Annual Production of A CHRISTMAS CAROL Remains Enchanting
The 2021 Cast of SCR's A CHRISTMAS CAROL

So, in summary, in case the L.A. production is just too pricey or too far a drive or maybe the remaining nose-bleed seats are just not good enough, SCR's own worthy, more intimate production is still a wonderful, worthy alternative filled with enchanting theatrics and a timeless story told well.

* Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ *

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Photos by Jenny Graham for South Coast Repertory.

Performances of Charles Dickens' A CHRISTMAS CAROL continue at South Coast Repertory through December 26, 2021. Tickets can be purchased online at www.scr.org, by phone at (714) 708-5555 or by visiting the box office at 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.

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