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SCR’s all-stops-out ‘Christmas Carol’

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It’s no accident that Hal Landon Jr. wears the part of Ebenezer Scrooge like a snug woolen mitten. Every Christmas for 25 years, he’s dusted off the old crank’s top hat and given his cane a twirl around the main stage at South Coast Repertory, in a local holiday tradition rivaled only by Robert Schuller’s musical menagerie, “The Glory of Christmas.”

It’s a canny bit of casting that still seems fresh, even as Landon has aged crisply into the part. Preposterously thin and craggy, he lacks the jowly, harrumphing bluster we’re used to in Scrooges, instead giving us a miser closer to Moliere’s -- perversely rigid in his petty hatreds and clownishly elastic in his inevitable softening.

The all-stops-out “Christmas Carol” that Landon rides likes a theme park boat is an agreeably traditional model, with no shortage of bustling crowd scenes and nifty special effects -- the most startling by far being the sudden appearance of Scrooge’s office, its halves flying in and slamming together tighter than a prison gate (sets are by Thomas Buderwitz, based on Cliff Faulkner’s original designs). The adaptation by Jerry Patch (a Dickensian name, that), with direction by John-David Keller, moves with admirable briskness but pauses for light diversions (choreography by Linda Kostalik), including some innocuous banter within the Von Trappishly sweet Cratchit family.

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Though most of the work onstage shows the polish but not the wear of years of practice, Drew Dalzell’s sound design (based on Garth Hemphill’s original) isn’t quite on the mark -- too many film-style booms and whoops -- and someone might want to rethink Marley’s greenish Freddy Krueger mask (Dwight Richard Odle’s costumes are otherwise in fine shape). Not to worry, though: As Landon and a handful of SCR stalwarts have learned, this “Carol” is likely to give its craftsmen many Christmases future to get it right.

-- Rob Kendt

“A Christmas Carol,” South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, 12 and 4 p.m. Sundays (and Dec. 24). Added performance 7:30 Monday. Ends Dec. 26. $20 to $46. (714) 708-5555 or www.scr.org. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

*

Mother-daughter team shines

Spanning two generations of musical styles and show biz experience, “Hey! I’m Tha Mama” at Hollywood’s Tamarind Theatre showcases the considerable -- and complementary -- vocal talents of Spanky Wilson and her daughter, Angela Teek.

Under Tom Kendall’s breezy direction, this agreeable cabaret-style show unites mother and daughter for introductory and closing duets that frame solo mini-sets by each. The opening medley, arranged by Howlett Smith (who also provided original music), smartly weaves together material in the two women’s respective jazz and Broadway styles (from “Take the ‘A’ Train” to “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”).

Wilson, a veteran singer who toured with the Duke Ellington Orchestra and appeared frequently on TV variety shows in the 1960s and ‘70s, brings her earthy, no-nonsense sensibility to bear on a wide range of standards. Her set includes slow soulful ballads, brassy up tempo blues and lively jazz numbers. Two failed marriages and the responsibility of bringing up four children fuel the urgency in her rendition of “Tobacco Road” and the heartache in “If You Could See Me Now,” while her undefeatable spirit soars in a “Better Than Anything” medley.

Teek effectively bridges their generational segments with a re-creation of “Apartment 101,” the song she watched her mom sing on “The Red Skelton Show” that sparked her own performing aspirations. Her musical journey traces her efforts to stop emulating her idols and discover her own voice, which ultimately led to Broadway musical turns. On “Over the Rainbow,” Teek’s silky vibrato provides an elegant contrast to Wilson’s gut-driven worldliness, but both singers prove superb belters when called upon.

The sizzling accompaniment includes musical director Charles Love on piano, Charlie Owens on sax, Ryan Cross on bass and Raymond Lee Pounds on drums.

Freewheeling narrative interludes, intended to provide insight into the singers’ personal connections and associations with their material, have a tendency to ramble -- less impromptu banter and tighter scripting would help.

But the lack of pretension and the obvious affection shared by mother and daughter make for an intimate and charming evening.

-- Philip Brandes

“Hey! I’m Tha Mama!” Tamarind Theatre, 5919 Franklin Ave., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Jan. 23. $20. (323) 960-7745 or www.plays411.com/mama. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes.

*

High jinks in Little Tokyo

Leave it to the Nisei Widows Club of Gardena to turn a Little Tokyo yuletide spectacular into a test of wills. This loopy society of second-generation Japanese Americans faces unrest in its snacking ranks.

Club president Sumi (Takayo Fischer) is determined to emcee. Sumi’s libidinous rival, Tomi (Jeanne Sakata), challenges her in a wickedly familiar debate. Computer whiz Hana (Emily Kuroda) arbitrates, though choreographer Fumiko (Donna Kimura), design-minded Taeko (Nancee Taye Iketani) and sage Masako (Annabelle M. Lee) would rather be rehearsing. Michiko (Irene Sanaye Furukawa) needs an antacid, but don’t tell Betty (June Kyoko Lu); she brought the Spam misubi.

Eventually, the show proceeds, more or less, with revisionist carols and cross-pollinated specialty numbers by surprise celebrity guests. So goes “The Nisei Widows Club Holiday on Thin Ice” at East West Players. Director Marilyn Tokuda’s appealing troupers turn this amiably cornball holiday show into a festive celebration of community.

Though critics dismissed 2003’s “The Nisei Widows Club,” audiences loved it, and the hokey-jokey scenario here supports the faux-amateur ethos. So do designers Ken Takemoto (set and props), Jose Lopez (lighting), Yoshi Irie (sound) and Rodney Kageyama (costumes), whose contributions include a stage-filling tree and seasonal hapi coats.

Slotting in local notables -- such as former Nisei Week queens Judy Gilbertson, Traci Murase and Kimi Tokuda-Evans, ballroom dancer Ken Kimura and demonstrative drummer boy Keisho Maehara -- ensures a different daffy experience at each show. Moreover, the palpable goodwill on tap heralds an annual tradition in the making: enjoyable for any culture, chocolate mochi for its targeted demographic.

-- David C. Nichols

“The Nisei Widows Club Holiday on Thin Ice,” David Henry Hwang Theater, 120 N. Judge John Aiso St., L.A. 8 p.m. today, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Ends Sunday. $25. (213) 625-7000, Ext. 20, or www.eastwestplayers.org. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.

*

Empty ‘Americana’ rides in on rails

The only authentic found art in “Searching for Americana” -- Emily Brauer’s wisp of a sketch of a draft of a play about a traveling documentary film crew ostensibly seeking to “embrace oddity” -- is the persistent woo-woo of real trains at the Santa Fe Depot, a clear hooting distance from the Hunger Artists Theatre’s black-box space in Fullerton.

What’s onstage, on the other hand, is a desperate let’s-put-on-a-show exercise, lurching awkwardly from scenelet to vignette and staged with no mishaps but no inspiration, either, by director Katie Chidester on and around an unprepossessing cutaway trailer set by Gene Rogers.

The show has precisely four moments that rise just above the general stupor. Security guards playing with light sabers in Roswell, N.M. -- scene of a purported UFO crash in the ‘40s -- is a fun gag.

And there’s a convincingly testy post-Roswell blowout among the film crew, led by the show’s only consistently watchable actor, Jon Howard, as the documentary’s jerky producer.

The other noteworthy grace notes are non sequiturs: Kristin Elliott’s video monologue about her character’s late mother, and a quirky hookup between a smiling rube (Tony Swagler) who drives a wiener car and the film’s spunky, nubile production assistant (Renee Santos).

Alas, when these two happy campers hot-dog it out of there, we’re stuck with the half-baked documentary and its phlegmatic director, Vladima (Amber Scott), whose decision to sacrifice her filmmaking ambitions for the sake of love and small-town contentment feels like the creative mercy killing this show deserves.

-- R.K.

“Searching for Americana,” Hunger Artists Theatre Company, 699-A S. State College Blvd., Fullerton. 8 p.m. today and Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday. Ends Sunday. $15. (714) 680-6803 or www.hungerartists.com. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.


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