(Costa Mesa, CA) December, 2013 – There are many traditions practiced during this providential time of Christmas: the happiness shared by the families, watching “A Charlie Brown Christmas” on television, chestnuts roasting on an open fire, the pearly snow (unless you live in Southern California), and going to a classic screening of “It’s a Wonderful Life” at the local cinema. And then there is Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.” When watching the Alastair Sim or George C. Scott versions, this timeless story of how the miser Ebenezer Scrooge has a change of heart—courtesy of the appearance of four ghosts—is practically the ultimate morality tale of how the Christmas Spirit can bring salvation to the emptiest of souls. South Coast Repertory has a Christmas tradition of its own: putting on a theatrical production of this classic with Resident Artist Hal Landon Jr. reprising his role of Scrooge year after year. After 34 straight years, this classic still captures and maintains the Christmas magic for Orange County audiences.
It’s London during the 19th century. The bitter, cold-hearted Ebenezer Scrooge (Hal Landon, Jr.) scowls in his accounting office, forcing his clerk Bob Cratchet (Daniel Blinkoff) to work with him on Christmas Eve. He turns away solicitors requesting donations to the orphanage, he scoffs at his nephew’s (William Francis McGuire) invitation to have Christmas dinner with his family, and he barks “Bah Humbug” to anyone he encounters on his way back home. He thrives off of his own unhappiness and the unhappiness of others until he encounters the ghost of his dead partner, Jacob Marley (a ghoulish Gregg Daniel), who roams the world in the chains of his sins. The specter warns Scrooge that he will be visited by the ghosts of past, present and future throughout the night (Richard Doyle, Timothy Landfield, and James MacEwan, respectively) in the hopes that the old miser will change his ways before he becomes forever doomed by the evils of his life.
What is brilliant regarding John-David Keller’s (who is also fantastic as the mischievous Mr. Fezziwig) direction is that he keeps the production fresh by changing the look and the vision of the overall “picture” of the play every year, and this year is no exception. The stage is framed with sketches and paintings of Victorian England that were inspired by woodcuttings created by the legendary John Leech and William Hogarth, capturing the flavor of the dark atmosphere of a poor London, but somehow maintaining an inner spirit of hope at the same time. This mosaic-like creative touch by Scenic Designer Thomas Buderwitz is a masterful touch which helps with the transitions of each scene. Keller’s flawless direction also includes musical numbers that prevent the dark tones of the play from being depressing, most notably the opening scene, the Fezziwig party and Fred’s Christmas soiree.
But another key player in keeping this production fresh for 34 straight years is Landon Jr.’s multilayered performance as the iconic Scrooge. In previous years, Landon Jr. has diversified his portrayal with many emotional ranges, from an explosive angry Scrooge to a sullen bitter Scrooge. This year, Landon has taken a new angle at the character: regretful sadness. In very subtle ways, Landon Jr. slowly reveals Scrooge’s revulsion to Christmas which has a surprisingly sympathetic flair early in the play. Rather than showing Scrooge as a demon to be frightened of, he shows a tragic figure that is broken by fate and the choices he has made in his life. When the ghosts take him on a tour of his past, present and possible future, the sadness is slowly peeled away, revealing a desire for redemption. And after 34 years, Landon Jr. can still do that famous joyous summersault across his bed, collecting his top hat on his head in the process. It’s a bravura performance by this talented artist and it will be interesting how he will show another layer of Scrooge in future years.
Doyle’s Ghost of Christmas Past is a charming aristocratic dandy, while Landfield steals the rest of the first act as a bubbly Ghost of Christmas Present, which feels like a combination of Santa Claus and Shakespeare’s Falstaff. Blinkoff’s Cratchit is a sympathetic man, but is not portrayed as a victim, which increases his likability considerably, especially showing a nice touch of wit when he teaches his son Peter (a hilarious Noel Renfrow) about how to woo a wife. Karen Hensel’s Mrs. Fezziwig is a spicy delight and McHuire’s Fred shows true benevolence and charity for his uncle. The rest of the supporting players are also a pleasure to watch, making this annual SCR tradition of “A Christmas Carol” a must-see tradition for all who live in Orange County.
Peter A. Balaskas is a journalist, fiction writer, editor, and voice over artist.
A Christmas Carol opened November 29-December 26, 2013
South Coast Repertory: Segerstrom Stage
655 Town Center Drive,
Costa Mesa, CA 92628-2197
Photos by SCR