KPBS AIRDATE: December 8, 1993
If you’ve ever heard gospel music, you know it can really rouse the dickens out of anyone. That would make a marriage of the sounds of gospel and the writing of Charles Dickens a perfect union. For the second year, the San Diego Repertory Theatre is celebrating that marriage, in “A Christmas Carol: The Gospel According to Dickens.” On this first anniversary, it’s clear that the relationship has only gotten stronger. It’s a marriage destined to last.
The three wise men of this Christmas story are its conceiver/collaborators: Douglas Jacobs, Osayande Baruti and Sam Woodhouse. The adaptation of Dickens’ timeless 1843 tale has undergone some changes, and it’s tighter, funnier, more energized and more musical than last year’s version.
It’s still the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, referred to here as “that cheap sucker,” the frugal fellow most closely associated with the mean-spirited “Bah Humbug!” But it’s Scrooge’s redemption set to rousing music. Baruti’s lively, varied, original numbers are interspersed with some standard knockouts — songs from the church, the blues and the Christmas repertoire.
Once again, the show-stopper is the hand-clappin’, foot-stompin’ “Feel the Spirit,” which this year gets a well-deserved reprise at the end of the show. Other musical highlights are new additions: the Deacons’ soulful, harmonic Motown sound in “We Knew Ol’ Scrooge” and the spirited “Sweeter to Me,” which appears during the visit of the Ghost of Christmas Future.
There’s a strong religious tilt to the production, which has turned Scrooge into a man who was “saved by grace and found salvation.” Well, that seems apt, I guess, since the entire story is told as a cautionary sermon by a minister. Ron Taylor presides, and he is a presence, especially leading his choir in the hell-raising opening number, “Black Diamond Express,” which echoes over the yawning grave of Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s long-dead partner, a man who bought “a ticket to ride” and took “the A train to Hell.” Scrooge has a ticket, Taylor tells us, and pointing ominously into the audience, says we’ve aaallll bought a ticket.
Well, this production is an E-ticket, a musical roller coaster that roams from spiritual to rap. Sometimes it’s a pretty bumpy ride, but this is probably still a work in progress. Once the Rep gets it just right, it should have a soul-stirring annual tradition on its hands.
The cast is stronger this year, the silliness more inspired. Richard Farrell is a wonderful, mutable Scrooge. The ensemble is extremely versatile, with chameleon-like standouts T.J. Johnson, Melinda Gilb and Linus Weiss. Mary Grimes really does the Big Mama bit in “Feel the Spirit,” and Carl Overstreet is a much more confident, tuneful Tiny Tim, one who remembers which leg is lame.
The choir definitely has the spirit, and the dynamic backup band helps give it to them. The costumes are kaleidoscopic, as varied and variegated as the set and lighting. Speaking of light, Scrooge’s final words of redemption, aimed straight at the audience, are “Walk in the light. Have a happy holiday.” A gently spiritual end to an evening pumped up by spirituals.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1993 Patté Productions Inc.