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STAGE REVIEW : Rep’s ‘Christmas Carol’ Rings With Holiday Joy

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The San Diego Repertory Theatre has produced a bold, challenging, beautifully wrought version of “A Christmas Carol” on its Lyceum Stage that will not be to everyone’s taste.

To bring home Dickens’ message about the poor of his day in the show’s 15th annual year here, directors Walter Schoen and Tavis Ross have contemporized the setting so that we can see Charles Dickens’ story as it might be discovered by the poor of our day.

Dickens himself, a passionate advocate for the overworked and underfed, would probably love it. But post-show complaints mixed with praise from an audience that seemed divided about having their old-fashioned “Christmas Carol” tampered with.

Without changing the words in the faithful adaptation by Douglas Jacobs, the company’s artistic director, the story begins in a contemporary urban setting, not unlike the streets surrounding the theater itself. The actors are dressed like our own homeless, crowding around barrels of burning paper for warmth. And their varying ethnic backgrounds--African-American, Anglo, Latino--hold up a mirror to our own multicultural society.

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Into this mix, a little boy, played by the adorably precocious 10-year-old Kory Abosada, brings a copy of “A Christmas Carol” home to read to his mother. Just as he gets started, the police sirens start shrieking and the people run to hide. The little boy returns with his book before the others do and encounters an old man (Leon Singer) checking the place out. The boy approaches the man, and the man slaps him--hard. The other homeless return and surround the old man menacingly.

The old man’s punishment as mimed by the company? He has to act out “A Christmas Carol” with them, playing the part of Ebenezer Scrooge. The boy plays the parts of both Tiny Tim and the youngest of the Ebenezers that Scrooge meets in his subsequent journey with the Ghost of Christmas Past.

By the time the story ends, with the cast pulling props from their environment and singing haunting Christmas melodies that come out of their variety of heritages, the old man who plays Scrooge has had a change of heart. This time when the sirens come, he puts his arm around the little boy protectively. Like Scrooge, he has learned a lesson about keeping Christmas in his heart.

This year’s production is an extension of the contemporary setting explored by Schoen as solo director last year. But while the idea seemed unfinished a year ago, this time the added pantomimed prologue brings the message home.

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One certainly cannot imagine any improvement on the performances.

Singer, an actor who hails originally from Mexico, is a memorable Scrooge--so crusty and cynical that it is all the more moving when he melts. Lance E. Nichols is stalwart as Scrooge’s good clerk, Bob Cratchit, Richard Ortega utterly charming as Scrooge’s good-hearted nephew, Fred. Tavis Ross suggests pain even as he inspires fear as the ghost of Scrooge’s old partner in parsimony, Jacob Marley. Osayande Baruti brings charismatic life to the high-stepping Fezziwig, the good master Scrooge had as a young apprentice. And Cristina Soria lends fine support in her double role as Fezziwig’s and Cratchit’s wives.

Narrators Dana Pere and Alyce Smith-Cooper keep the story flowing as they pass the story from hand to hand.

Bruce Nelson, who plays the oldest of the young Ebenezers, provides the spirited choreography that is such a delight in the Fezziwig scene. Musical director Linda Vickerman does such a fine job with the arrangements and compositions sung by this terrific array of voices, that one wishes more music could have been included.

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Tom Buderwitz’s sets, nicely lit by John B. Forbes, are as they were last year--intelligently evocative of a modern street scene, with props designed to look as if they came naturally from such a place. The costumes by Mary Larson also seem reminiscent of those from last year, but again cleverly so. The best of the pleasing bunch has got to be the Ghost of Christmas Present costume which makes the big, hearty-voiced Richard Allen look like a human Christmas tree, with tinsel and name brand packaging hanging from his arms and legs.

But the true completion of the contemporizing concept here is the San Diego Rep’s Magic Christmas program. Each patron is requested to bring an unwrapped present for disadvantaged children and/or their families from the Hillcrest Receiving Home, St. Vincent de Paul, Casa de Amaro, Hidden Valley House, Southeast Emergency Quarters, Project Safehouse and Casa de Paz. The presents will be placed under a tree in the Lyceum lobby and on Dec. 19, the actor playing Scrooge will give out the presents after a benefit performance for children and families from these shelters.

For that audience, this setting should certainly bring the Dickens’ story home.

“A CHRISTMAS CAROL”

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By Charles Dickens. Adapted by Douglas Jacobs. Directors are Walter Schoen and Tavis Ross. Sets by Thomas Buderwitz. Costumes by Mary Larson. Lighting by John B. Forbes. Sound by Malcolm Lowe. Music direction, composition and arrangements by Linda Vickerman. Choreography by Bruce Nelson. Stage manager is Julie A. Moore. With Kory Abosada, Richard Allen, Osayande Baruti, Beth Bayless, Paul James Kruse, Helen Reed Lehman, Olga Macias, Bruce Nelson, Lance E. Nichols, Richard Ortega, Dana Pere, Tavis Ross, Leon Singer, Alyce Smith-Cooper, Cristina Soria and Mary Kay Wulf At 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and 7 p.m. Sundays with Saturday/Sunday matinees at 2 through Dec. 23. Tickets are $20-25. At 79 Horton Plaza, 235-8025.


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