A Christmas Carol Review - Orange County South Coast Repertory Theater

Does it simply sound sentimental to say, 'I love Christmas' and I love going to see the same plays year after year during the holiday season!?   Orange County's South Coast Repertory believes in tradition!

The cast of A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol was first published in 1843 as a novella and quickly became a perennial holiday favorite. The story of love and redemption remains one of Charles Dickens' most widely recognized and popular creations. On Christmas Eve, penny-pinching Ebenezer Scrooge is his usual miserly self, chasing off solicitors for the poor, chastising his sole employee, Bob Cratchit, for wanting to take off Christmas Day and insulting his nephew Fred for celebrating a holiday that 'has never put a penny in anyone's pocket.' But that night, Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his dead partner, who portends the arrival of three spirits who will show him the desolate path he has chosen and offer him a chance to correct his ways.

Ebenezer Scrooge (Hal Landon Jr., third from left) makes the Cratchit family’s holiday more joyful in Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol

Imagine you arrive at the theatre, excited as you were the year before.  You've planned your whole day around this evening' you've sat in traffic and found your parking spot' .Finally' .you've arrived, however this year your experience will be slightly different, this year, instead of walking thru the double doors into the theatre with hundreds of other holiday, spirit filled people' this year are escorted back stage where there are 1000 moving pieces taking place' .You are lead to a place where hundreds of long hours have been put into rehearsals and stage settings.  Hundred's of hours of practicing lines and learning new dance steps that inevitably always take our breaths away.  You are now amongst the entire staff and you can actually feel the excitement, the adrenaline and the passion that each and every individual seems to carry about them.  You start to understand why some people have chosen theatre as their careers and why others embrace every opportunity they have to be involved at all'

Ebenezer Scrooge (Hal Landon Jr., background) watches the Fezziwig Christmas party festivities

5 MINUTES TILL SHOW TIME! 5 MINUTES TILL SHOW TIME! You hear someone whispering throughout the stage' 'EVERYONE TAKE YOUR PLACES, PLEASE'' ..shhhhhhh' ..quiet please' .

Although I didn't personally get the opportunity to visit back stage this year and feel that had I had that opportunity I would have enjoyed focusing on as many memorable details as possible.  I did however find a very interesting article written by someone who did get that opportunity' Listen to what they had to say about some of their behind the scenes discoveries.  I found some of it amusing, non the less, at the conclusion of this person's writings, they couldn't have said it better by wrapping it up with this' 'As long as Took owns the role, Marley's Magic Door will remain magic one of those "wow!" moments that make SCR's "A Christmas Carol" (and, for that matter, a night at the theater) so irresistible.

Hal Landon Jr. as Ebenezer Scrooge and Don Took as Jacob Marley's Ghost

I know this sounds cheap and sentimental, but I love Christmas," said John-David Keller, who helped SCR's former literary manager Jerry Patch with the adaptation of Dickens' best-loved story and has been directing the play since its debut in 1980. Keller also plays jolly old Fezziwig, which would explain the large fat roll he was strapping to his stomach.

"This is Orange County's Christmas tradition. I know of three generations of some families who have seen it. We estimate that 60 percent of the people in the audience on a given night have seen it before."

Scrooge (Hal Landon Jr., left) has a special gift for Tiny Tim (Omead Moini)

Each year, Keller faces what he calls "a balancing act. You want to change certain things, but not so much that you disappoint the (regulars) who are expecting it to look like it did last year."

Always changing

The show changes incrementally from production to production not only Keller's direction, but the cast and set as well. This year, there are three new actors in the lineup. Scrooge's office has received a face-lift.

The Solicitors (Richard Doyle, left, and Martha McFarland, right) are surprised by Scrooge's (Hal Landon, Jr, center) generosity

"There are a couple of veteran pieces that have been here since the beginning in 1980, but they're nothing the audience can see," said SCR's technical director, Jon Lagerquist, who has been shepherding the production since he arrived at the theater in 1985. "This is our third (Scrooge) office (and) our third bedchamber."

Lagerquist led a quiet and fleet-footed backstage tour during the first half of Tuesday's "Christmas Carol" performance. It's a shadowy but intense world of black-clad technicians who move sets on and off stage with a tricky combination of brute force, a watchmaker's precision and perfect timing. Secrets such as the Cratchit turkey transformation were revealed (I know but I'm never telling). Two prop tables and two prop cabinets bristled with items. Small pushcarts for the outdoor crowd scenes were poised and ready, as was a quietly humming fog machine, which is used liberally during Scrooge's ghost-filled bedchamber scene.

OK, OK, I'll reveal a couple of "Carol" secrets. Landon's famous somersault (he vaults off the bed and somehow ends up with his hat on his head) is made easier by angling the bed slightly downstage. And the flying mug is thrown by a stagehand who has to lie flat on his back in a small, coffin-like space below Scrooge's bed. "He never misses," Lagerquist said.

Two seasons ago, Lagerquist shifted all major set pieces onto wagons wheeled platforms, many of which are guided by tracks to make scene changes even faster. Most sets split into two mammoth halves and are withdrawn to opposite wings while their upper portions are whisked vertically into the fly space. Such large-scale changes take no more than 10 seconds. Later, sets are pulled back into the wings and others take their place on the tracks. The tolerances in the wings are very tight, but the major moving is done when the actors are onstage and thus out of harm's way, Lagerquist said.

There were a few minor fluffs. Fezziwig's platform jiggled slightly. A flat swayed when an actor brushed against it. A stage technician was slightly late getting into position. Lagerquist scribbled notes in the dark: fixes in the making.

Backstage, others toil in slightly less frenetic environments.

"This is a fairly wig-heavy show," said wig-maintenance technician Kelly Meurer as she worked on the tresses of Hannah Sullivan, 12, of Westminster, who plays Belinda Cratchit. " 'A Christmas Carol' reminds me of an opera lots of supernumeraries who all need some hair work."

Sullivan is one of two young actresses playing the role of Belinda. The show's 16 child and teen performers are divided into eight-member red and green teams who alternate playing the younger roles: one performance is red, the next green.

They're managed by Lisa Ackerman, who sports the most unusual title in the program: child wrangler.

"I was in 'A Christmas Carol' six years ago," she said. "I know the play well, and I know these kids. I'm responsible for making sure they're ready and properly dressed."

Ackerman led her charges in a pre-show warm-up exercise. "Breathe in. Breathe out," she instructed. "Let all the stress of the day go away with that one breath. With your next breath, bring yourself into the world of the play."

Cookies and cracking up

In the actors' dressing rooms, loose, rib-poking camaraderie reigns.

"What's new this year?" Landon asks, repeating my question. "My insoles. They're new this year."

Homemade cookies are passed around and Victorian accoutrements are donned as the performers reminisce about the interlocking histories of "A Christmas Carol" and their own careers.

"I've had two roles over 26 years," said Howard Shangraw, who plays Scrooge's nephew Fred. I was the originator of young Ebenezer."

"This is my 21st year. I haven't owned a script in about 12 years," said Martha McFarland, who plays Mrs. Fezziwig. "On the first day of rehearsal I always think, 'Oh, I've forgotten the lines.' Then it starts and out they come." McFarland, like Landon a founding artist who has been associated with SCR since its birth in 1964, also teaches at the company's Theatre Conservatory.

Fellow founding artist Richard Doyle isn't sure how many times he's been in "A Christmas Carol." "Somewhere in the 20s, I guess," said Doyle, who plays the Ghost of Christmas Past.

Art Koustik, another founding artist, has missed only one year of the production. "A motorcycle accident," he admits, looking sheepish.

Took, who has played Marley for "more years than I can remember," is taking life easier now. He moved last year from Orange County to North Hollywood, and he' says he's happy to be out of the audition treadmill.

But as Took prepares in the darkened wings to make his big entrance into Scrooge's bedroom, he seems like a much younger performer at the peak of his game. Laden with the character's chains, he nevertheless looks light on his feet as he winds up, then rushes headlong through the door.

"The faster you pass through it, the better the illusion is to the audience," said Lagerquist.

As long as Took owns the role, Marley's Magic Door will remain magic one of those "wow!" moments that make SCR's "A Christmas Carol" (and, for that matter, a night at the theater) so irresistible.

Hal Landon Jr. has entertained audiences for over a quarter of a century with his memorable embodiment of 'Ebenezer Scrooge.' A South Coast Repertory Founding Artist, Landon originated the role of the world's most celebrated miser. The production also features fellow Founding Artists and long-time cast members Richard Doyle (The Spirit of Christmas Past), Art Koustik (Joe), Martha McFarland (Mrs. Fezziwig) and Don Took (The Spirt of Christmas Yet-to-Come). Director Keller also appears as 'Mr. Fezziwig' with original cast member Howard Shangraw as 'Fred' and Timothy Landfield as 'The Spirit of Christmas Present.' Returning in the roles of 'Bob Cratchit' and 'Mrs. Cratchit' are Daniel Blinkoff and Jennifer Parsons. New to the cast are Christian Barillas (Ebenezer as a Young Man), Jennifer Chu (Belle) and Ann Marie Lee (Sally).

Joining the cast of A Christmas Carol are four graduates of South Coast Repertory's Professional Intensive Program: Courtney DeCosky (Fan), Andy Garza (Thomas Shelley), Isaac Nippert (Mr. Topper) and Dillon Tucker (Young Jacob Marley). The cast also includes16 local students selected from South Coast Repertory's Youth and Teen programs. This year's group of Cratchit kids and street urchins consists of (by hometown): Corona del Mar Christopher Rybus; Coto de Caza Elizabeth Wilson; Huntington Beach Alex Paul; Irvine Brendan Kreditor, Matthew Pancoe, Sanaz Toossi; Lake Forest Courtney Kato; Manhattan Beach Covi Brannan; Newport Beach Megan Lambert; North Tustin Phillip Jarrell; Rancho Santa Margarita Christi Muncey; Santa Ana Ryan Gates, Omead Moini; Westminster Hannah Sullivan; and Yorba Linda Mason Acevedo, Demie Santone.

The creative team for A Christmas Carol includes Thomas Buderwitz (set design), Dwight Richard Odle (costume design), Donna and Tom Ruzika (lighting design), Dennis McCarthy (musical arrangement/Composer), Drew Dalzell (sound design), Dennis Castellano (vocal director), Linda Kostalik (choreographer), Hisa Takakuwa (assistant director) and Erin Nelson (stage manager).

Julianne and George Argyros are Honorary Producers and The Orange County Register is the Media Partner.

TICKETS to A Christmas Carol 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. Ticket prices range from $22 to $52. There will be an ASL-interpreted performance on Saturday, Dec. 16 at 2:30 p.m. Runs through December 24th!

Regular performance times: Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 7:30 p.m, Saturday matinees at 2:30 p.m and Sunday matinees at 12:00 and 4:00 p.m.

December 2 SAT at 2:30pm
December 2 SAT at 7:30pm (Press Night)
December 3 SUN at 12:00pm
December 3 SUN at 4:00pm
December 5 TUE at 7:30pm
December 6 WED at 7:30pm
December 7 THU at 7:30pm
December 8 FRI at 7:30pm
December 9 SAT at 2:30pm
December 9 SAT at 7:30pm
December 10 SUN at 12:00pm
December 10 SUN at 4:00pm
December 12 TUE at 7:30pm
December 13 WED at 7:30pm
December 14 THU at 7:30pm
December 15 FRI at 7:30pm
December 16 SAT at 2:30pm (ASL-interpreted)
December 16 SAT at 7:30pm
December 17 SUN at 12:00pm
December 17 SUN at 4:00pm
December 19 TUE at 7:30pm
December 20 WED at 7:30pm
December 21 THU at 7:30pm
December 22 FRI at 7:30pm
December 23 SAT at 2:30pm
December 23 SAT at 7:30pm
December 24 SUN at 12:00pm
December 24 SUN at 4:00pm

South Coast Repertory is located at 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa, at the Bristol Street/Avenue of the Arts exit off the San Diego (405) Freeway in the Folino Theatre Center, part of the Segerstrom Center for the Arts. Parking is available off Anton Blvd. on Park Center Drive.

Photos by Henry DiRocco/SCR

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