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THEATER REVIEW : The Power of One : Patrick Stewart’s dramatic reading of ‘A Christmas Carol’ doesn’t rely on makeup, costume changes, a backdrop or much in the way of props to fill the stage.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At the beginning and end of his one-man show, Patrick Stewart lifts a book labeled “A Christmas Carol,” allowing it to be applauded. It’s a fitting gesture: The emphasis in “Patrick Stewart Presents ‘A Christmas Carol’ ” is squarely on the Dickens novella itself.

Yet there is more at play here--the genius of a performance that does not need makeup, a costume change, a backdrop or anything in the way of props except for that all-important book and a few modest sticks of plain wooden furniture: a lectern, a desk, a table, a chair, a stool.

What Stewart does bring to the stage is his own virtuosity. By taking away the razzmatazz usually associated with theatrical “magic,” he is able to fill the stage all the more richly with his own penetrating and versatile voice, his mastery of gesture, and facial expressions that instantly summon fear, delight, longing and awe.

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All of this remains (and this is the key to the show’s success) in the service of the passion of Dickens’ tale of Ebenezer Scrooge, the cold old miser who learns on Christmas Eve that the welfare of mankind, not the making of money, is his true business.

Indeed, this show seems much in the spirit of the public readings Dickens himself used to do. “Patrick Stewart Presents ‘A Christmas Carol’ ” comes to the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts for two sold-out performances this weekend.

Stewart adapted the story and directed the production, which was acclaimed on Broadway in 1991 and 1992; it has since toured, with great and well-deserved popular and critical success. Stewart may be best known for his six seasons as Capt. Jean-Luc Picard on “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” but his 20-plus-year stint as an associate artist of the Royal Shakespeare Company is what shows here.

He strides onto the stage forcefully in a suit and dark green shirt, no tie, his bald head gleaming. He sets up his scant furniture, opens the book on the lectern and announces in a booming voice that “Marley was dead.”

From there, he tells the story much as Dickens wrote it, in a variety of voices from from man to woman to phantom. His tone ranges from the otherworldliness of the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present to the warm, earthy quality of the large Cratchit family chattering excitedly around their Christmas goose.

Most set changes and all costume changes are mimed, from Bob Cratchit’s winding his scarf around himself to Scrooge’s putting on his nightdress, cap and slippers. In a sly, humorous twist, Stewart even mimes the drinking of a cup of water to regain his voice after a vigorous dance around the stage as the exuberant Mr. Fezziwig.

The lighting by Fred Allen (the only other design credit) complements Stewart’s vision effectively and without fuss. Stewart portrays Scrooge as a frozen creature, resistant to light and warmth. As he raises his hands to shield his eyes, he makes you realize that the intense love exuded by the Ghost of Christmas Past would be blinding to Scrooge. And when his voice struggles and cracks with Scrooge’s first laugh, he makes you hear the almost-painful delight that comes when such a man learns to care again.

Stewart’s greatest accomplishment is that his Scrooge is not a caricature but an Everyman whose sins are present in most of us to varying degrees. As a result, his redemption is potentially everyone’s as well.

* “Patrick Stewart Presents ‘A Christmas Carol,’ ” Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Drive, Cerritos. Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m. SOLD OUT. (310) 916-8500. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes. Adapted by Patrick Stewart from the novella by Charles Dickens. Directed by and starring Patrick Stewart. Lights: Fred Allen.


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