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STAGE REVIEW : Lamb’s ‘Carol’ Heartwarming Fantasy Fare : Theater: ‘Dickens, Dining & Song’ a sentimental journey to a 19th-Century Christmas celebration.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the Lamb’s Players Theatre’s “Dickens, Dining & Song,” Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” snuggles cozily between a delightful main course and a sumptuous dessert buffet.

It’s a perfect fit for this 50-minute version of Dickens’ classic story which, as adapted and directed by Kerry Meads, offers no fresh insights, but tells the story simply and well, involving the audience at every possible turn. One of the two narrators gets a table of patrons to regale Scrooge (David Cochran Heath) with “Hark the Angels Sing.” Another table makes a place for Scrooge when he sits down to a meal at an inn.

Also to the credit of this demure little “Carol,” it never forgets its place as just one element--a key one--in the company’s idealized 19th-Century Christmas celebration at the Great Hall of St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral. The show, now back for its second annual appearance, continues through Dec. 28.

This Dickens is tailored less for the theater connoisseur than for those longing for the kind of splendid Victorian-style festivity that is more the stuff of Hollywood imagination than reality. Still, if you can afford the ticket prices of $43 to $48, and enjoy hokey English accents and the swirl and gleam of full Victorian skirts (beautifully designed by Veronica Murphy Smith), you get your money’s worth in warmth, feasting, song and entertainment.

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The evening begins at 6:30 p.m. in the courtyard of the Great Hall, where madrigal singers perform carols around a festively decorated buffet table of baked Brie, roasted chestnuts, wassail and punch. At 7 p.m., these same singers (who are part of the team of actors also doubling as waiters), graciously usher patrons inside the gaily decked Great Hall--all twinkling with lights, evergreen, bows and bells twining around its massive wooden beams.

Woven through the evening, which does not conclude until about 10 p.m., is a menu of seventeen beautifully sung songs, including two particularly amusing ones itemizing first the lavish dinner menu (by Consummate Catering) served family-style--tender turkey, hearty prime rib, rich mashed potatoes, savory stuffing, orange-flavored baby carrots, raisin-spiked applesauce and on and on. And then the long dessert parade (prepared by Paul Vida) led by, as the song (by musical director Vanda Eggington) goes: “Plum pudding/Here it comes/ . . . Soon it will be in our tums”).

As for telling the story of “A Christmas Carol,” which begins at 8:15 p.m., it starts out with a thinly conceived play within a play conceit when Mr. Dickens himself (Heath), urged to recite “A Christmas Carol” by Mrs. Dickens (Meads) for their guests (the audience), refuses with a “Bah, Humbug!”

Mrs. Dickens attempts the task herself, floundering so badly that Mr. Dickens takes over, playing Scrooge. The rest of Dickens’ family joins in, taking other parts and soon the play-within-a-play idea is dropped and the company gets on with the show.

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Because of the brevity of the presentation, the actors don’t get much time to flesh out the characters. But this skillful troupe hits key points with success, though leaving room for improvement.

Heath’s Scrooge seizes the imagination with his journey from bluster to humility, although for some reason, he plays Scrooge as a robust middle-aged man, rather than the old fellow who faces the daunting task of changing lifetime habits in order to melt like winter into spring.

The four apparitions that change his life work well enough. Josh Escajeda provides a frightening specter of Marley (face gleaming in the dark) and Nate Peirson a hearty, glittery Christmas Present. The casting of 6-year-old Leandra Salazar as the Ghost of Christmas Past, brings a fresh--if singularly unscary--look to that unearthly visitor. (She becomes a real scene stealer later as Tiny Tim).

Also effective are the three silent hooded figures as the collective Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come who unhood themselves to become some of the characters Scrooge meets on his way.

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Under Meads’ direction, the show has improved from last year, thanks not just to the expanded cast (last year, they told the same story with just four actors), but also the expanded set. Instead of one stage area, designer Mike Buckley provides two, one on either side of the hall, in addition to the balcony-- which hosts one surprise entrance.

“A Christmas Carol” is a sentimental story, done here sentimentally and, to the critical eye, about as realistically as this cozy relationship depicted between Mr. and Mrs. Dickens (who had a very troubled marriage of their own in real life). But hope and faith were far more important than reality in Dickens’ little tale. In that sense, the show is true to the modestly stated intentions of Dickens himself that Heath, in the part of Dickens, quotes in the play:

“I have endeavored in this Ghostly little book to raise the host of an idea which should not put the reader out of humor with themselves, with each other, with the season or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly.”

Pleasant is the operative word for this production. And like an unerring arrow, it hits just the right heartwarming spot.

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‘DICKENS, DINING & SONG”

Dinner theater including “A Christmas Carol,” adapted from Charles Dickens by Kerry Meads. Director is Kerry Meads. Musical direction by Vanda Eggington. Set by Mike Buckley. Costumes by Veronica Murphy Smith. Lighting by Nathan Peirson. Sound by David S. Thayer. Great Hall decorations by Evelyn Peirson. Stage manager is Sonja Anderson. Meal by Consummate Catering. Desserts by Paul Vida. With David Cochran Heath, Kerry Meads, John Carroll, Pat Thayer, Paul Eggington, Vanda Eggington, Christine Nicholson, John Lorenz, Larry Baldwin, Melissa Reeves, Melissa Baldwin, Nate Peirson, Tracy Allen, Rick Meads, Josh Escajeda, Sonja Anderson and Leandra Salazar. At 7 p.m. Monday-Friday and 8 p.m. Saturdays, with Saturday matinees at 4 through Dec. 28. No performances Dec. 24 or 25, with an added matinee Dec. 27 at 4. Tickets are $43-48, with discounts for youths 12 and under. At the corner of 5th and Nutmeg, San Diego, 474-4542.


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