KPBS AIRDATE: December 10, 1997
Two decades of holiday entertainment; two San Diego theaters. One keeps reworking a show that’s been a seasonal perennial for 150 years; the other is offering a world premiere that, with a little fixing, could become a new holiday tradition. “A Christmas Carol” and “Festival of Christmas.” Don’t leave the season without ‘em.
In 21 versions of the timeless 1843 Charles Dickens classic, The San Diego Repertory Theatre has used every springboard and setting possible for “A Christmas Carol” — from gospel singers to homeless vagrants. But this year, it’s back to basics. Director Sean Murray has underscored the text, coaxing his cast into invigorating and revitalizing the well-worn tale. The result is a touching and beautiful production.
First, the look. Very dramatic, starting with Giulio Perrone’s vast, Victorian set, dwarfing a tiny Dickensian village downstage, complete with snow-covered lanes, and houses with lights in their windows. Trevor Norton’s lighting design is wonderful, eerie and evocative, as is Randy Cohen’s sound. Then there’s the live Celtic music, performed by the local band SilverWood. And the ghosts, one of whom enters on stilts, and another which is a positively scary ten-foot puppet, a threatening, black vision of Christmas to come.
The ensemble is excellent; their quick-changes of look, costume and accent are most effective. They don’t sing all that well, but they sure can act. Ron Campbell is the best Marley I’ve seen in years. As a variety of young women, Carla Harting and Ayla Yarkut are delightful. But ultimately, the show belongs, as it should, to Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge, he who has attained mythic status for evolving from a mean old miser into a loving, giving, caring humane being, tickled to death by the wondrousness of life. This Scrooge is here for an encore, and it’s a holiday gift to San Diego. When James Winker played Scrooge two years ago, he brought me to tears, so convincing was his transformation and redemption, so moving was his outstanding performance. I still consider him to be one of the best Scrooges ever, a credible, fallible human, not a garish caricature.
Sean Murray has done a careful and caring job, respectful of the text and of its message, breathing new life into this well-seasoned “Carol.”
Now Lamb’s Players have been reinventing Christmas stories for 20 years. This is their tenth new script, a sort of dramedy with music. Kerry Meads, who co-wrote “Boomers,” has gone back to the sixties, and set this “Festival of Christmas” somewhere in the Midwest.
The first act is terrific; it’s warm and funny and chock-ful of characters and complications. Grandma and Grandpa can’t have Christmas at their house because their pipes froze. So the whole musical family plops into Elaine and Caroll’s house, much to beleaguered Lainie’s chagrin. They have three kids, including an ultra-hormonal teenager, hilariously played by Amy Elizabeth Cook, and little Buzz, the grand inquisitor, endearingly portrayed by that theater prodigy, Bix Bettwy. The rest of the family includes a bigoted grandpa who’s grumpy about retiring and growing old, a battling couple who can’t conceive, a liberal daughter considering the Peace Corps, and a puerile son who shocks his relatives by bringing a black Army buddy home for the holidays.
Meads sets up a bunch of interesting situations, but lets them flounder in the second act, which becomes less funny, more maudlin and overly religious in tone. If she worked to make the second act match the first, she’d have a warm and wonderful holiday piece that would have a very plausible afterlife beyond Lamb’s. Meanwhile, despite a flawed second half, the direction is spunky, the set and the vocal arrangements are great, and the cast is superb with characterization and physical comedy — and they also sing like the Dickens. This follow-up to “The Lion” is a triumph for the Lamb’s.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1997 Patté Productions Inc.