KPBS AIRDATE: December 13, 1995
This time of year, we get equal doses of the true holiday spirit and the crass commercialism of Christmas. Well, local theaters can also be naughty or nice. There is the real, heartfelt holiday message, and there is the bogus Christmas cash-cow. In the former category is the San Diego Repertory Theatre’s touching and beautiful production of “A Christmas Carol.” In the latter category, I offer my vote for theatrical holiday ripoff: “Forbidden Broadway Christmas” at the Theatre in Old Town .
Close on the heels of its 1994 smash 17-week run, “Forbidden Broadway” returned to San Diego last month, for a limited run. The estimates were that 50% of the material was new. Well, maybe. But then, a scant four weeks later, we have “Forbidden Broadway Christmas,” with mostly the same cast members and most of the same material. I seriously doubt the 30-40% new estimate. I’ve now seen most of this stuff three times. And none of the holiday material even bears mentioning, except maybe the Drummer-Boy bit and “Fiddler on the Roof’s” Tevye singing “If I Were a Gentile.” Some of the so-called additions entailed changing a line or two from the previous versions. The wit was neither sharp nor biting; it’s mostly repetitive.
Ironically, all the holiday humor spoofs the mercenary mentality, as in “Have Yourself a Money Little Christmas.” What better way to illustrate a song than to act it out in real life? Writer Gerard Alessandrini obviously hasn’t put the 12 years into this material that makes the “Best of” stuff sound so good. If you’ve already seen either version of “Forbidden Broadway,” stay home. If you haven’t, well, some of it is very funny — the first time around.
Now, on to brighter holiday news. The San Diego Repertory Theatre’s 20th anniversary production of “A Christmas Carol” is its best ever. Hands down. Adapter/director Douglas Jacobs has finally gotten it completely right. Stripped of the slapstick and silliness, devoid of the excesses of music or mayhem or “concept,” this is the Real Thing — a simple, elegant, magnificent Victorian “Carol,” heartfelt and moving. With beautiful, harmonious singing, thanks to Steve Gunderson’s original music, arrangements and orchestrations. There is pre-show carol-singing, and songs all throughout, lovely, little known and traditional melodies. The set and lighting are wonderfully evocative. The costumes are marvelous. Co-director and choreographer Javier Velasco has added texture and rhythm to the piece, but, again, he should background and tone down his intrusive featured dancer.
For “A Christmas Carol” to work its real magic, to instill its timeless moral lessons and hope for redemption, Scrooge must be right. James R. Winker is superb in the role, perhaps the best Scrooge I’ve ever seen. He is not a caricature, but a believable, fallible man who manages, with great good fortune and an open heart, to enter a state of grace. Winker makes his enormous transformations in subtle and magnificent ways. He is not posing and posturing, not dipping down for the easy, sleazy laugh. He is a gentleman throughout, a heart-wrenching human who forces us to feel the real holiday spirit.
This production is not to be missed. Bring the family; tell your friends. The Rep reminds us why this play is a perennial, and why it continues to move us and touch us and hopefully, change us.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1995 Patté Productions Inc.