On Theater: SCR shows stronger, edgier 'Christmas Carol'

After staging the same production for more than three decades, a theater company might be expected to "phone it in," to go through the well-established motions that have worked for longer than most of their actors have been on this planet.

Not South Coast Repertory. Its 32nd annual production of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" is, if anything, stronger and more immediate, even more visceral than those which have gone before. The faces (except for Scrooge's) change over time, but the overall effect grows exponentially.

This year's show carries a bit of an edge to it, an edge punctuated by Drew Dalzell's dynamic sound design and amplified by some glorious performances. As always, Hal Landon Jr. is the gold standard as Scrooge, yet even he appears more intransigent in the earlier scenes and more ebullient following his conversion — and continues to reap applause for his "hat trick."

Director John-David Keller — who doubles, as always, as young Scrooge's mentor, Mr. Fezziwig — certainly shows no signs of decay. His actors are rock-solid, particularly Karen Hensel, who enacts his wife in the Christmas-past scene. Hensel could step right into "Les Miserables" and play Madame Thernardier with that attitude and characterization.

Landon is one of three SCR founding actors in the show, three others having either retired or moved on. Richard Doyle as the ghost of Christmas Past and a present-day solicitor (with Hensel) is a picture of strength and conviction. Art Koustik, now only featured in the show as the cider salesman and stolen goods fence, adds layers of streetwise authenticity.

Daniel Blinkoff took over the role of Bob Cratchit that John Ellington had played forever, and now finds himself in his 10th straight year as Scrooge's hard-pressed clerk. He brings an admirable depth of feeling into the part, a quality shared by Jennifer Parsons as his less-than-forgiving (where Scrooge is concerned) spouse.

William Francis McGuire, with several previous SCR credits, takes over the role of Scrooge's jolly nephew Fred, backed nicely by Ann Marie Lee, in her fifth "Carol" season, as his wife. Erika Whalen, also familiar on the SCR stage, renders a touching performance as Scrooge's teenage sweetheart Belle.

Particularly strong are Doyle and the other two spirits, Timothy Landfield as the ghost of Christmas present and Gregg Daniel as Marley's specter. Landfield successfully transitions from party animal to partied out, while Daniel injects a richly fearsome quality into his chain-clanking apparition.

The younger versions of Scrooge (Christian Barillas) and Marley (Jordan Bellow) offer a glance at how both miserly characters evolved. Bellow's Marley is even more grasping and heartless than Barillas' Scrooge as teenagers, giving the latter a model to emulate.

Youngsters double-cast in the children's roles come off quite believably, with Christopher Huntley's perennially hungry Peter Cratchit drawing a number of hearty laughs.

Thomas Buderwitz's scenic designs are whisked on and off stage briskly in this, his 10 season with the show. Dennis McCarthy (composer and arranger) and Dennis Castellano (vocal director) keep the production's musical elements solid.

You may have (as I have) seen all previous 31 renditions of "A Christmas Carol" at SCR, but that shouldn't hinder you from viewing this latest, perhaps greatest, holiday experience.

TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Daily Pilot.

If You Go

What: "A Christmas Carol"

Where: South Coast Repertory, 650 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: At 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, and noon and 4 p.m. on Sundays until Dec. 24

Cost: $34 to $59

Call: (714) 708-5555 or go to http://www.scr.org

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