Arts journalists view each visit to the theater as a kind of Christmas morning present, ornately wrapped so you have little idea what’s inside. As the house lights dim, I think to myself: Will I see a profound commentary on cultural identity? Or a frame-breaking play that enlightens us about the Constitution? Maybe it’s something from a bold new voice that could change the performance art forever.
During the monotonous holiday season, however, the answer might be just another staging of “A Christmas Carol.” Ebenezer Scrooge was right — bah, humbug, indeed.
The Charles Dickens classic is a cash cow, according to the publication American Theatre. But why do theatergoers get excited about the same “gift” year after year after year? The exact same story from 1843. With the same three ghosts. And the greedy cheapskate who grows into a generous guy. There’s really no room for any kind of surprise, right?
I embarked on a quest to find out, attending seven Southern California productions in nine days. Yes, there were healed Tiny Tims and fake indoor snow, but here’s the real Christmas miracle: The marathon might have been just the thing to change the mind of this “Christmas Carol” curmudgeon, once and for all.
Most humorous edition
I didn’t know what to expect from “Ebenezer Scrooge’s Big San Diego Christmas Show,” but I definitely didn’t foresee a Scrooge who struggles to ride a Bird scooter while listening to Katy Perry’s “California Girls” and who leads a singalong of “Jingle Bells” in a vintage swimsuit and flip-flops. But Gordon Greenberg and Steve Rosen’s 1915-set story had the almost-full audience laughing often from the five actors’ contemporary references to Spirit Airlines, Party City and Kaiser Permanente, as well as local jokes about Legoland, Coronado and the Chargers.
Because it was scantily staged in the round, the fun (yes, I said it) production was an 80-minute masterclass in clever special-effect workarounds: Ghostly winter fog came from an aerosol can, cawing crows were emulated by flapping the covers of a book, and Tiny Tim was played by a crawling Dan Rosales with a child puppet hanging from his neck.
The kids in the front row were fascinated by the snow along the perimeter of the stage, while I was surprised to learn that “Feliz Navidad” and “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel” make for a harmonious holiday song mashup. Who knew?
The Old Globe in San Diego, ends Dec. 29
Most indefensible audience
As the lights dimmed inside the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills — barely half full — a child in the second row started crying, “I want to go home, I want to go home.” I wondered if it was an omen, one David Mynne shrugged off on the black-box stage, coldly decorated with just three candelabras for the one-man show that ended Dec. 8.
Mynne wore animated facial expressions to play the story’s many characters, but he did so without a lot of vocal variation, often pausing the plot to carefully look down, sidestep, pivot and straighten up to assume the next role. It’s tough to stir emotion in an audience when tragic Tiny Tim is “played” by a ball at the end of his scarf, a sock puppet with an ill-fated cough.
Despite the pervasive candies unwrapped by viewers throughout the 75-minute set — which one man entered 50 minutes in, only to sleep through the remainder of the show — Mynne did manage to squeeze out some laughs, thanks to his cartoonish verbal sound effects for the creaking of stairs, the bubbling of soup or the cry of a dog being kicked by Scrooge.
Most efficient delivery
There are only 37 seats inside North Hollywood’s Whitmore-Lindley Theater Center, and I was one of just six people on hand for yet another one-man show. But I soon found myself at the edge of my creaky seat, watching Porters of Hellgate’s associate artistic director, Gus Krieger, traverse the garland-lined stage and effortlessly toggle among a straight-faced narrator, a grouchy Scrooge, a cheerful caroler, an exhausted Bob Cratchit and more, each with a unique posture and accent.
With no second spared and no blocking wasted, the breezy 65-minute performance felt like a vivid, living-room reading of a good book, as if delivered with the speed of an Amy-Sherman-Palladino or Aaron Sorkin show and the liveliness of a seasoned sports announcer. Yet he slowed down for more poetic portions, like when Scrooge visits the lonely lighthouse keepers with the spirit of Christmas Present. It’s a section left out of every other “Carol” adaptation I saw, but it was perhaps the most moving piece of narration in my marathon.
Directed by Drina Durazo, this staging deserved more than just its four nights in North Hollywood. Thankfully, it moved to Mammoth Lakes.
Edison Theatre in Mammoth Lakes, ends Dec. 29
Most beloved Scrooge
I must have missed a memo about a dress code, as mostly everyone at my sold-out matinee was dressed in bright red holiday garb, many touting the same scarf Scrooge wears onstage (conveniently sold in the lobby). But it appeared to be part of the ritual of this Orange County staging, which has starred local legend Hal Landon Jr. as the beloved curmudgeon for 40 years. He received lengthy applause upon entry, plus a loud cheer when he gleefully performed his signature “hat roll” a few scenes before the curtain call, which of course got a standing ovation.
At two hours with intermission, this narrator-less take was the most traditional and literal rendition I saw, with its proscenium stage, sliding sets, sign language interpreters and multiple musical numbers and dance sequences. It spared no expense in illustrating the lavish holiday parties thrown by Scrooge’s nephew, and it gave more time than others to the bash hosted by Mr. Fezziwig — an opportunity to explain how Scrooge, played as a young man by the handsome Alex Knox, got to be so miserly in the first place. All this love for Scrooge almost made me forget why the character should be loathed at all.
South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, ends Dec. 24
Most literary interpretation
Though located inside a nondescript building on an Atwater Village side street, the Independent Shakespeare Company’s studio greeted me with an onslaught of holiday cheer: a lobby outfitted with an ornamented tree, a playlist of carols and a letter-size copy of Dickens’ book on the stand of an upright piano.
This two-hour version (with intermission) starred David Melville as the character of Charles Dickens. Using a podium, a chair and an end table, he shared the story of “A Christmas Carol” alongside an American assistant (Kalean Ung) standing in for some supporting characters while also acting as foley artist and in-house caroler. (The back-and-forth between the two of them, including how Dickens repeatedly mispronounces her name, was a subplot).
The premise of this “reading” strategically freed an actor from the challenge of juggling the story’s numerous characters. Instead, the framework made it feel like Dickens was telling a story about people he knows very well, complete with impressions and side comments — the way one does when recollecting an anecdote to a group of friends. It was as if the almost-full audience were spending time with the author himself (and could even take a picture with him in the theater’s photo booth afterward).
Independent Shakespeare Company in Atwater Village, ends Dec. 29
Most frightening Marley
I attended a weekday matinee — which, in this case, was a 10 a.m. show fit for field trips — so I found myself seated in the round with a few hundred primary schoolers. A great-grandson of the founders of the regional Glendale theater collected their attention with the “quiet coyote” hand gesture, and he explained that the company has been mounting the same production of “A Christmas Carol” annually since 1964 (with some technological updates here and there, of course).
Running more than two hours with an intermission, this musical adaptation features a large cast with plenty of kids, all of whom somehow managed to fit on the venue’s small, square stage. They even pulled quite a bit of choreography — with hoop skirts and lifts.
But nothing in the show got a bigger reaction than when the lights began to flicker and strobe, clouds of fog covered the space, and Jacob Marley — Scrooge’s deceased business partner, now wild-haired and zombie-like — appeared onstage with a howl. The children screamed in unison, and some even began to cry, and their chaperones attempted to console them as the scene continued: “It’s OK. It’s OK. They’re just acting.”
Glendale Centre Theatre in Glendale, ends Dec. 24
Most surprising staging
In this 90-minute version, Scrooge and the spirit of Christmas Yet to Come watch the Cratchit family mourn the death of Tiny Tim (played by a young girl) while seated on the train of a woman’s exaggerated black gown. Because, well, why not? Could the story include a song and dance per Christmas ghost? Sure. Was it OK if the cast spent a scene in neon pink and orange wigs, or face masks of various animals? Absolutely.
I watched each of these eccentricities and absolutely understood the real appeal of “A Christmas Carol”: It gave the theater-maker the ability to take a well-known and easily digestible story and customize every part of it, even if it didn’t make perfect sense. Every production of the classic can be a great creative playground, as long as Scrooge is indeed redeemed by the end. (I was surprised that though these seven stagings each took their creative liberties, none strayed from the story’s time period, or cast Scrooge as a woman or a person of color. But hey, there’s always next year.)
This production at A Noise Within, though sprinkled with surreal scenes, zoomed in on Scrooge as not just a matter-of-fact miser, but as a horrible, mean person. Here, he was a toxic boss who berated and threw things at his employee and condescendingly unfurled his coat and bag on Bob à la Miranda Priestly of “The Devil Wears Prada.” Played with prowess by producing artistic director Geoff Elliott, Scrooge sent chills up my spine as he walked through the nearly full house and stared down members of the audience, only to make me clutch my chest whenever he realized the error of his ways.
It was the only show I saw that truly conveyed these traits of his, which therefore made his eventual redemption so genuinely heartwarming. Upon finally learning the lesson of my “Christmas Carol” marathon, I left the theater as joyous as Scrooge when he woke up on Christmas morning and wished well to any theater staging this story yet again. Yes, I said it: God bless them, every one.
A Noise Within in Pasadena, ends Dec. 23