Thomas' Welsh childhood set to music

A familiar, familial appeal graces "A Child's Christmas in Wales" at the Gem Theatre in Garden Grove. Assured work from an engaging ensemble propels this sweet-spirited musical adaptation of Dylan Thomas' vintage story, which returns to Grove Theater Center, where it was a holiday perennial between 1986 and 1991.

Jeremy Brooks and Adrian Mitchell's dramatization has become a regional fixture since Cleveland's Great Lakes Festival commissioned it in 1983. The script, with contributions by Oliver Goldstick, refashions Thomas' nonlinear prose poem into a droll, delicate reverie for a vanished era.

Appropriately, directors Bud Leslie and Daniel B. Cartmell favor character and mood over gloss. Thomas (the excellent Danny Oberbeck) recalls his childhood celebrations, and becomes a kid before our eyes. His parents, pals and formidable array of relatives drift around his focus, interspersed with hymns, carols and traditional Welsh music sung and accompanied by the cast.

Oberbeck, like many of his colleagues a veteran of this show, is convincingly enthusiastic. Gary Bell and Michelle Loven are suitably jocular as his loving parents. Adam Kalma, Cormac Doyle and Casey Kringlen make winning, spontaneous chums; Jonathan Mark Motil deftly embodies various townsfolk.

Set designer Shing Khor places the festivities in a spare arena of bleached wood and pop-up snowdrifts, nicely lighted by David C. Palmer, while choreographer Diane Doyle keeps the dances natural and unaffected. Even occasional collegiate bobbles seem at one with the unforced pleasures of this heartwarming revival.

-- David C. Nichols

"A Child's Christmas in Wales," Gem Theatre, Grove Theater Center, 12852 Main St., Garden Grove. 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday. Ends Sunday. $29. (714) 755-7016. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.


A 'Pageant' from 99-cent items

A girl named Clara slips into a slumber world where everything familiar is suffused with wonder and a hint of danger. Much the same seems to happen to a boy named Ken. Rather than dreaming of the nutcracker beneath the Christmas tree, however, Ken Roht envisions the inventory of 99 Cents Only Stores, reassembled and repurposed into new realms of possibility.

The current installment of Roht's 99 Cents shows, the fifth, is "Pageant of the 4 Seasons," a sequence of dance dramas set to original music. It is the first post-Evidence Room presentation at the Beverly Boulevard site now known as the Bootleg Theater.

Twenty dancers-singers-actors perform these abstract scenarios, costumed, as usual, by Ann Closs-Farley, working with a small army of associates and heaven only knows how many stacks of molded-plastic baskets, shiny tablecloths and countless other 99-cent items.

Summer unfolds as a tropical fantasy-slash-nightmare in which a virgin may or may not be in peril of sacrifice at the hands of an Elvis-pompadoured high priest -- all while islanders sing tiki-style tunes. Fall is a ballet in gold, danced among wind-blown leaves. And spring is a perky Young Americans-style tribute to renewal. Marc Jackson, Curtis Heard and Roht wrote the music for these sections.

In winter, movement slows to stillness as Will Watkins, though youthful and imposingly tall, grows stooped with age and the chorus lies curled beneath snowy veils. The frozen air fills with opera-like themes written by O-Lan Jones.

-- Daryl H. Miller

"Pageant of the 4 Seasons," Bootleg Theater, 2220 Beverly Blvd., L.A. 8 p.m. today and Friday; 7 and 9 p.m. Saturday; 5 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Returns Jan. 4-28. $20. (213) 389-3856. Running time: 45 minutes.


An author-ized take on 'Carol'

Trying to pick and choose among the annual onslaught of "Christmas Carols" and "Nutcracker" Suites? In a bid to distinguish itself from a crowded field, Independent Shakespeare Company courts your vote with an offbeat spin on one of these seasonal staples in "A Christmas Carol With Charles Dickens."

Taking a cue from history -- Dickens was also an accomplished actor renowned for solo recitals of his yuletide classic -- Melissa Chalsma's staging conjures him up for an encore performance at the Lillian Theatre.

A flamboyant figure clad in early Victorian style by way of P.T. Barnum, Dickens, as portrayed by David Melville, proves a youthful, energetic raconteur -- and an unabashed ham.

Diving into the tale of Scrooge with relish, Melville displays serviceable range in differentiating the characters' voices. His Ebeneezer is a suitably crotchety miser, nicely contrasted with his gregarious relatives and the browbeaten Bob Cratchit. His women, however, sound like they've been lifted from a Monty Python skit.

All the emphasis on performance is sometimes at the expense of the novella's careful prose. Though Dickens may have once considered a career on the stage, he ultimately favored the pen. It seems likely that even on stage he would have let the evocative prose dictate the rhythm and focus, with actorly embellishments serving the text rather than the other way round.

Joining Melville on stage is Mary Guilliams, who supplies supplemental dialogue and musical accompaniment on percussion, oboe and xylophone, even banging out a few strains of the "Nutcracker" Suite at one point -- a thoughtful touch allowing efficiency-minded viewers to cross two items off their holiday show checklists.

-- Philip Brandes

"A Christmas Carol With Charles Dickens," Lillian Theatre, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. 7:30 p.m. Sunday. Ends Sunday. $15. (818) 710-6303. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

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