O.C. THEATER : An Adult’s ‘Christmas’ : The Grove Shakespeare Festival takes a refreshingly non-syrupy approach to Dylan Thomas’ famous story of his Welsh childhood.
Although “one Christmas was so much like another” for Dylan Thomas in his youth, the Grove Shakespeare Festival’s sixth annual production of his famous story, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” has been so thoroughly revamped by first-time director Bud Leslie that it seems like a new show.
Freshened by simple staging on an uncluttered set, but most of all by a welcome emphasis on the lyric poet’s ringing language and an injection of some lovely Welsh a capella music, “A Child’s Christmas” still recounts Thomas’ Swansea memories of “that wool-white bell-tongued ball of holidays resting at the rim of the carol-singing sea.”
But this Yuletide production, which opened at the Gem Theatre during the weekend, strips away the Norman Rockwell-ish veneer that had begun to overlay recent versions. The sentimentalized tone is gone for the most part, and with it the cloying posterization that threatened to turn the genuine feeling of the Jeremy Brooks-Adrian Mitchell stage adaptation into a syrupy substitute.
Only a handful of players in the large Grove cast are back from previous years, including the two fine mainstays: Danny Oberbeck as the young Dylan and Gary Bell doubling as Dylan’s father and as the mature poet chronicling his Welsh childhood. Oberbeck, with his mischievous face and tousled hair, projects just the right air of boyish charm. And Bell, who is virtually a one-man band, rolls the captivating sound of the poet’s words off his tongue with euphonious authority.
Among several superb newcomers are Angela Eckhard as Aunt Elieri and Mary Beth Basu as Glenda. Eckhard not only brings an attractive presence to her role but also lends singular musical strength to the show with her colorful soprano. Basu contributes vocal strength as well in a vibrant solo.
But it is Jenifer Parker, also new, who helps ground the production in reality. Her portrayal of Dylan’s mother, a fairly thankless role, is not flashy or eye-catching. It is, however, credible when it easily could have been histrionic and turned the character into a dithering cartoon.
Indeed, while “A Child’s Christmas” displays a light comic touch throughout and is especially entertaining in the first-act scenes featuring young Dylan playing with his friends, the show as a whole steadfastly avoids pandering to children.
Ironically, Leslie’s uncompromising attitude in this regard could hurt at the box office more than the occasional languors of the second act, which are more or less built into the script.
So when the inevitable word-of-mouth gets out that the Grove has mounted “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” not really intended for the kiddies, let’s hope there are enough parents able to leave their offspring at home and willing to take in a holiday show without them.
‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales’
Dylan, the Poet / Father: Gary Bell
Young Dylan: Danny Oberbeck
Mother: Jenifer Parker
Uncle Glyn / Smoky: Scott Allen
Aunt Elieri: Angela Eckhard
Aunt Nellie: Marnie Crossen
Uncle Tudyr / Constable: Jerry Newman
Uncle Gwyn / Postman: Bob May
Aunt Hannah: Meg Gilbert
Aunt Bessie: Paula Kay Perry
Jim / Fireman 1: Bud Leslie
Tom / Fireman 2: Rick Tigert
Jack / Murgatroyd / Fireman 3: Darryl Armbruster
Brenda: Amy Griffin
Glenda: Mary Beth Basu
A Grove Shakespeare Festival production of the story by Dylan Thomas, adapted by Jeremy Brooks and Adrian Mitchell. Directed by Bud Leslie. Choreographed by Art Manke. Musical direction and sound design by Chuck Estes. Lighting design and scenic adaptation by David M. Darwin. Costume design by Laura E. Deremer. Makeup and hair design by Karen Juneman. Through Dec. 29 at the Gem Theatre, 12852 Main St., Garden Grove. Performances are Wednesday to Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 3 and 7 p.m.; Sunday at 3 and 7:30. Tickets: $18-22. Information: (714) 636-7213.