Pretty much the only version of Charles Dickens’ classic tale of greed and redemption, “A Christmas Carol,” onstage in London this season is at the Arts Theatre, where comic actor Gareth Hale is playing the recovering miser Ebenezer Scrooge. Seasonal family entertainment there tends toward pantomime -- slapstick musicals about Mother Goose, Cinderella and other characters from children’s fables.
But in Southern California, the theater community is more entranced with Victorians than their descendants are. All sorts of “Carol” adaptations and interpretations of Scrooge have been playing this month, from South Coast Repertory’s production for purists with Hal Landon Jr. in his 30th season as Scrooge, to a newer tradition -- Jason Moyer’s “Gay Apparel: A Christmas Carol,” at the Lyric Hyperion Theatre Café in Silver Lake, featuring John Downey playing Scrooge as the bitter overlord of a fashion empire.
Simon James, a native of Great Britain who made his debut as Scrooge with the Long Beach Shakespeare Company, is amused by America’s fascination with Dickens this time of year.
“It’s strange that the home of capitalism has adopted the homily to socialism as its Christmas pastime,” he says.
Dickens indicted the dawning Industrial Age with his 1843 novella “A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas,” about a miserly employer who sees the wickedness of his ways after Christmas Eve visits from four ghosts.
The book was immediately adapted for the stage, although it was the author’s successful campaign to spread his “ ‘Carol’ philosophy” that left a lasting legacy. Dickens performed 127 public readings of the work from 1853 until his death in 1870.
The iconic character of Scrooge has fascinated Hal Landon enough to make Scrooge his signature role in South Coast Rep’s faithful adaptation for the last 30 years.
“What always interests me is this really hard, cold, quite vicious person -- in his avarice, in his conscious mind, that’s who he is,” Landon says. “Not to get Freudian on you, but somewhere in his subconscious there lives this other side of him, because it takes a dream to bring him out of it.”
Early stage productions of “Carol” are lost to time, but actors such as James have favorite movie Scrooges of Christmases past.
The 1938 version with Reginald Owen is “brilliant,” he says. “The acting style is a bit dated, but I love that version. That one was very dark. He fires [employee] Bob Cratchit in that version, so Bob Cratchit has to go home and can’t even tell his wife he was fired on Christmas Eve. I like that.
“To make it work, you have to be afraid of this man. If he’s a cruel human devoid of warmth, then his retribution is more deeply felt. It’s like a modern-day Iago, isn’t it?” James said.
Perhaps better known -- he was mentioned more often by this crop of Scrooges -- was Alastair Sim, whose performance in the 1951 film “Scrooge” was a holiday tradition for British baby boomers.
“I loved it, but only if you see the 1938 version do you realize that Alastair Sim was nicer than Reginald Owen,” James says. “He was a cuddly uncle with a bit of an attitude.
“It depends on what the human psyche is when you’re making the film, what they tolerate at the time,” James said. “I don’t know why they don’t make another version of ‘Scrooge’ and set it in Goldman Sachs.”
Other much-admired Scrooges include George C. Scott, who played the role on TV in 1984, and Patrick Stewart, who lent his deep-throated bearing to the character in a 1999 production for television.
Most of this year’s Scrooges haven’t seen Hollywood’s Scrooge du jour: Jim Carrey, who has his curmudgeonly comeuppance in “Disney’s A Christmas Carol,” now in theaters. But Orson Bean planned to mention him. Bean played Scrooge at the First Lutheran Church of Venice in a saucy adaptation he wrote and debuted in New York in 1992. The free co-production of the Pacific Resident Theatre returned to Venice for the eighth year.
“We have a funny little thing where a little Scrooge and the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present fly over the length of the church,” says Bean, “They’re really four Ken dolls -- we cleaned out Toys R Us. I’m going to make a crack that the Jim Carrey folks were nervous about our special effects.”
For small theater companies grappling with a grim economy, “A Christmas Carol” is the gift that keeps on giving. Since the story is in the public domain, companies can stage new adaptations without paying royalties or worrying about lawsuits. “ ‘A Christmas Carol’ is what ‘The Nutcracker’ is for ballet companies,” says John Butz, a former theater professor turned Scrooge in Bart McHenry and Patrick Copeland’s interactive adaptation at the Covina Center for the Performing Arts.
With so many Scrooges of Christmas Past playing the role before them, how do these actors keep the role fresh -- and why do they even want to play a part that has been done so many times before?
“It’s a great part for an actor,” says Chris Winfield, who made his acting debut as Scrooge at age 13 on a stage at what was then Mt. Gleason Junior High School in Sunland. He was back in the L.A. premiere of Richard Hellesen and David De Berry’s musical adaptation staged by the Group Rep at the Lonny Chapman Theatre in North Hollywood.
“I’ve always wanted to revisit it, just because it’s a fabulous role. You go from being the meanest guy in the world to the nicest. You get to be onstage for two hours nonstop. There are so many emotions in this play, and you get to experience the joy of Christmas. How can you pass that sort of thing up?”
For Landon, playing Scrooge carries a considerable responsibility. “As the years have gone by, so many people have come up to me during the course of the year and told me how much the play means to them,” he says. “The Christmas spirit is revived in them every year, and people who were children when they first saw it now bring their children.”
With so many audience members remembering past performances, it’s even more incumbent on Landon to perform the role as if it’s something shiny and new.
“You’ve got to go to the real basics of acting -- really concentrating and focusing on making it all happen for the first time,” Landon says. “That’s what you’re taught in acting school, and it’s the only way to survive. Nights when my concentration isn’t working well, when I’m tired, it’s a lot of work. But when I can focus on saying everything for the first time, then the performance flows pretty nicely.”
Of course, some things get easier, namely, the makeup -- or lack thereof.
“That’s one of the big differences,” says Landon, who was a mere 38 when he debuted as the cranky old coot. “I used to spend an hour and a half putting on all this age makeup. Now I don’t spend any time at all.”