KPBS AIRDATE: December 9, 1992
There’s A Christmas Carol everywhere you go these days. Not only in elevators, department stores and telephone hold-lines, but also on stages around the county. The story by Charles Dickens has been with us for almost 150 years. And the San Diego Repertory Theatre has been twisting, turning, revising, revamping and re-conceiving the tale for the past 17. They never seem to run out of ideas for variations on an old familiar theme.
This year’s entry was a spiritual inspiration. It’s a marriage of the original salvation story and the save-your-soul sound of gospel music. It’s a magical match, which is being subtitled “The Musical Gospel According to Dickens.”
But the Rep isn’t exactly handing down the gospel. Which is to say, there just isn’t enough of it. Among the 32 songs, there’s an a cappella Temptations kind of number, a rap song, a Caribbean bit, a couple of carols and a lot of original if not memorable music by Osayande Baruti. But there’s only one real traditional hell-raising gospel song. It’s called “Feel the Spirit,” it’s about 50 minutes into the first act, and it alone is worth the price of admission.
It sports the requisite Big Mama, shaking like jello and rockin’ the roof. Mary Grimes is perfect, and the rousing number would make the devil himself feel the spirit. But I wish it had more musical company of the same calibre.
The musical accompaniment is great, and the voices are powerful, with April Grace, Shirley Charles, Paul Jackson-Miles and Brian Evaret Chandler really making their vocal presence known. But the setup isn’t always as smooth as the sound. Sometimes the lights, like the concept, grow dim.
We start out at the funeral of Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s deceased partner. The Minister, played by Baruti, leads the congregation in “Black Diamond Express,” which cleverly describes Marley’s metaphorical train-trip to hell, which had the devil as conductor, sin as the engineer and greed as the headlights.
The Minister becomes the story’s narrator, a device used in most of the Rep’s “Christmas Carols,” (the Douglas Jacobs adaptations), and, as is usually the case, sometimes the device works and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the narrator talks to the audience, sometimes he interacts with the characters. Sometimes you understand clearly what Baruti is saying and sometimes not.
But Richard Kneeland is a crusty enough Scrooge, and he really seems to delight in his second-act transformation. Brian Evaret Chandler plays two imposing Ghosts — Christmas Present and Future, though his costumes, like those of the rest of the cast, appear totally unmotivated. As Christmas Present, he seems to have been outfitted at the sale rack of “Jesus Christ Superstar”; as Christmas Future, he’s Easter-time Jesus himself. Meanwhile, Sean Thomas Murray’s Jacob Marley is a “time warp” from “The Rocky Horror Show.”
The capable chorus is attired for aerobics, in stretch pants and long shirts. What could costume designer Kay Peebles have been thinking? Ditto scenic designer Victoria Petrovich, whose window-paned, angular, multi-level set looks great, but the ladders seemed rickety and the rake of the ramp was so steep it was a Christmas miracle that nobody fell and broke his neck.
Fortunately for the chorus, directors Woodhouse and Baruti kept them sitting or standing a good part of the time, but there should be much more choreography. Clearly, the emphasis is on the music. And that’s bound to give you a good time. This production underscores what every gospel choir knows: keep singing and you’ll be saved.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1992 Patté Productions Inc.