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THEATER REVIEW : A Tale of Two ‘Carols’ : SCR Production Is a Welcome Holiday Visitor

TIMES STAFF WRITER

South Coast Repertory’s 14th annual holiday production of “A Christmas Carol,” which opened here Saturday, glows like a burnished Victorian heirloom--dark around the edges but gleaming within.

Hal Landon Jr., back for his perennial star turn as Ebenezer Scrooge, seems in better form than ever at the heartfelt center of a swiftly paced, atmospheric show full of Dickensian sentiment. And, as always, a teeming cast of briefly sketched characters fills out the stage.

As written by Jerry Patch and directed by John-David Keller, this adaptation of the Charles Dickens story prizes warmth sometimes to the point of overheating. Which is perhaps unavoidable, given the original material. Yet this year’s reprise largely manages to avoid the sort of sentimental inflation that aims strictly for the tear ducts.

Every stage production of “A Christmas Carol” is inevitably saddled with the heavy dramaturgical baggage of Scrooge’s overnight transformation from a hard-hearted penny pincher--"a miser’s miser,” as one Londoner calls him--into a contrite do-gooder gleefully doling out money and Christmas gifts.

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SCR’s version shoulders the Christian burden of making Dickens’ moralistic lesson believable not just with magical special effects, as all the better productions do, but this time out with two unexpectedly vivid performances in addition to Landon’s.

Landon conveys the impression of a true sea change in Scrooge’s character right down to his bones. His gaunt face turns giddy; his stern voice brightens; his haunted manner becomes comic, even serene.

Yet we might never believe it if not for the two chief agents spurring him to this transformation: Don Took as the Ghost of Jacob Marley and Ron Boussom as the Spirit of Christmas Present.

Took, who scares the daylights out of Scrooge (and some of the audience’s younger theatergoers), plays the chain-rattling Ghost like a combination of a comic-book super monster tossed up from the depths and a Shakespearean creature on the order of Caliban in “The Tempest.”

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Boussom, on the other hand, exudes the verdant aura of a young Santa Claus in green robes, rosy cheeks and flaxen beard. He is nothing less than a pantheistic escort to the realm of redemption. Notwithstanding the here-and-now of reality, he infuses Scrooge with hope and the entire production with glittering cheer.

Among other standouts in the cast are Howard Shangraw, who plays Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, with understated elegance; John Ellington, who portrays Bob Cratchit (Scrooge’s kind-hearted, underpaid, overworked clerk) with homey touches of humor; and Devon Raymond, who sketches in Belle (the would-be love of Scrooge’s youth) with subtle shadings.

Cliff Faulkner’s clever period sets evoke 19th-Century London with flair and have the added advantage of moving on and off stage with speed. Apart from their redolent texture, they lend the production an efficiency that helps keep up the smooth pace of Keller’s detailed direction.

As usual, Dwight Richard Odle’s costume designs are authentic throughout and, for the party scenes, especially colorful. The sound and lighting design are also up to SCR’s customary technical standards.

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* “A Christmas Carol,” South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tuesdays-Fridays, 7:30 p.m., Saturdays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m.; Sundays, noon and 4 p.m.; matinee Dec. 22, 2:30 p.m.; Dec. 24, noon and 4 p.m. Ends Dec. 26. $13-$28. (714) 957-4033. Running time: 2 hours.

Hal Landon Jr.: Ebenezer Scrooge

Howard Shangraw: Fred

John Ellington: Bob Cratchit

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Marilyn Fox: Mrs. Cratchit/Rich Woman

Art Koustik: Mr. Fezziwig/Joe

Irene Roseen: Mrs. Fezziwig/Laundress/Solicitor

Don Took: Jacob Marley’s Ghost/Spirit of Christmas Yet-to-Come

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Richard Doyle: Spirit of Christmas Past

Ron Boussom: Spirit of Christmas Present/Chimney Sweep

Devon Raymond: Belle

A South Coast Repertory production. Adapted by Jerry Patch from the Charles Dickens story. Directed by John-David Keller. Scenic designer: Cliff Faulkner. Costume designer: Dwight Richard Odle. Lighting designers: Tom and Donna Ruzika. Sound designer: Stephen Shaffer. Music director: Diane King Vann. Production manager: Michael Mora. Stage manager: Bonnie Lorenger.

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