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Stage : ‘Wales’ a Slice of Dylan Thomas With Softer Edge

TIMES THEATER WRITER

A child’s Christmas anywhere always seems to be part miracle. “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” at the Grove Shakespeare Festival at the Gem, is part miracle.

Two months ago, the show, which opened Friday, had been on the verge of cancellation due to a financial shortfall at the theater. It would not have opened if an anonymous donor had not stepped forward and provided the life-saving $10,000 that, together with a $6,000 grant from the Hyatt Hotels and additional contributions from the Garden Grove Fire Fighters and others, made it possible for this holiday event to go on as scheduled.

This 1982 musicalization of the Thomas work by Jeremy Brooks and Adrian Mitchell is in its fifth consecutive year in Garden Grove. It is not what one would label a great piece of work--not enough of the Thomas language is allowed to come through--but it is a show full of everything one likes to associate with the holidays: playfulness, warmth, wisdom, humor, caroling and goodwill.

As a representation of Thomas’ own childhood in the small Welsh seaside village of Swansea, it departs from more familiar holiday fare, though not entirely. The vigor of the Thomas language we do hear, and the dizzying euphoria of young Dylan and his playmates snowballing the neighborhood cats and taunting his coy girl cousins (who are better than the boys at ricocheting stones in the freezing sea), are a breathless, recognizable image of Christmas as seen through the eyes of a young boy, consumed with the exhilaration of that special day among special friends.

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The aunts, uncles and cousins who come for dinner are nicely delineated borderline cartoons we love to love. When Mother burns the Christmas bird and it is generously replaced by another from the Hotel Metropole, we relish the family moment. But when the show decides to cater to more traditional, harmonious visions of familial bliss, it’s Dylan-Thomas-meets-Norman-Rockwell time, at the expense of the muscular Thomas poetry and Thomas’ own keener, though not less loving, perspectives.

This occurs chiefly in the Brooks-Mitchell adaptation, which also, mostly successfully, has fun imposing gently humorous lyrics on familiar carols. Those are the acceptable liberties taken by a show with nothing more complex on its mind than to lighten a few hearts. The events as Thomas has them, however, avoid saccharin, but Brooks and Mitchell (who developed this in 1982 for the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival) make the experience both more universal and more ordinary by blunting its edges.

As a family show, designed as much for children as their parents, it also runs on too long, with too many scenes that repeat themselves. Rather than tighten and trim, director Thomas F. Bradac has chosen to play along with this indulgence and allows snappy Danny Oberbeck as young Dylan (his fifth year in the role) to confuse cuteness with brightness. This is compensated some by the exemplary Gary Bell, who plays Dylan grown up (and Dylan’s father) with a patriarchal composure that never slips into the self-important or patronizing.

Neither, indeed, does the production. If Bradac should have been quicker with a blue pencil, he has mostly seen to it that what we receive is frolicsome. What is wanted--and next year may provide it--is something just a little less sweet.

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The sweetness should be reserved for the “Welsh Tea Time and Pastries” offered at the Gem after the matinees of Dec. 16, 23 and 30 (at a charge of $15). “Welsh Pub Nights,” which happen postperformance in the Gem lounge on Fridays and Saturdays and include singing along with the cast, are free.


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