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Sentimental Journey : ‘Child’s Christmas in Wales’ is engaging fare, despite a second act that slows the holiday pace.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nostalgia enfolds us at this time of year--tender as a holiday carol, warm as fresh-baked gingerbread, comforting as a loved one’s kiss.

Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” at the Laguna Playhouse, fans these sentiments into a roaring yule fire with its recollections of stockings stuffed with toys, adventures with friends in the frozen outdoors and holiday dinners attended by untold numbers of aunts, uncles and cousins.

An Orange County tradition since the mid-'80s, when it was staged by the old Grove Shakespeare Festival, the show returns for its second year at the playhouse. Although directed anew by playhouse artistic director Andrew Barnicle, the production features several of the same players, including the real-life family members who have played key roles from the beginning: Danny Oberbeck as young Dylan Thomas, stepdad Gary Bell as Thomas’ father and mom Marnie Crossen as one of the aunts.

It’s a sharply staged, engagingly performed presentation, even if one of its main conceits--young adults pretending to be children--is awfully difficult to believe, and even if the action slows down and repeats itself after the holiday meal, threatening to make us as sleepy as if we too had gorged on turkey and stuffing. The achievement is particularly impressive considering that weekend rains flooded the theater, allowing for just one, abbreviated technical rehearsal before Tuesday’s opening.

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Adrian Mitchell and the late Jeremy Brooks, figures long associated with England’s Royal Shakespeare Company, adapted this stage version in the early ‘80s, drawing upon Thomas’ gorgeously descriptive story of the same name, as well as bits of other tales. The adapters turned it all into a musical by including a number of beloved carols, several of which are outfitted with playful new lyrics.

The story begins with a vision of the adult Thomas (Bell) at his writing desk, invoking memories of boyhood Christmases in the early 1920s in his native Wales. The narration then segues over to the young Thomas (Oberbeck).

The boy begins Christmas Day, of course, by emptying his stocking of its bounty of toy soldiers and candy. Father (Bell, in his dual role) waxes poetic over the breakfast table, and the postman, stopping by with a package, angles for a cup of holiday cheer (which, in Bob May’s delightful cameo, he clearly doesn’t need).

The bulk of the day is given over to dinner with the relatives--a delightful collection of politics-spouting uncles, tippling aunts and prissy girl cousins.

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The first act breezes along, but the second act--with a return to play outdoors as well a long string of ghost stories and mock-vaudeville turns by the relatives--begins to wear out its welcome. Still, moments as lovely as a family sing-along of “The Holly and the Ivy” soon have us forgiving all ills.

Julia Zheng’s set is built on a turntable so that the snow-flocked evergreen and icicle-hung band shell revolve to become--on the opposite side--the gaily decorated Christmas tree and the cozy interior of the Thomas home.

Oberbeck, with his mop of blond curls and boyish swagger, is an appealing presence in the central role of young Thomas. Still--and I’m sorry to be a Scrooge--he’s not as youthful as when he began playing the role.

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The program says he’s got children of his own now; perhaps one of them will soon be old enough to inherit the part.

BE THERE

“A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” Moulton Theater, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, matinees 2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday; also 7:30 p.m. Dec. 22 and 4 p.m. Dec. 24. Ends Dec. 24. $18-$35. (714) 497-2787. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.


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