On Theater: Scrooge and gang a holiday gift

Tradition, in local theater circles, is defined not by the occasional revival of "Fiddler on the Roof" but by the annual appearance of "A Christmas Carol" on the stage of South Coast Repertory — and the inimitable Hal Landon Jr. in the central role of Ebenezer Scrooge.

It's difficult to believe, but this is the 34th annual edition of SCR's classic holiday adventure — and the 34th star turn for Landon, who still generates applause with his hat-trick somersault near the end of the show. How long it'll continue is anybody's guess, but Landon appears to have a lifetime contract.

While it's basically the same show year after year, director John-David Keller usually finds something new or different with which to spice up the proceedings — like having Landon's character fall into an open grave last year and continuing to do so in the current incarnation.

Landon, as usual, is brilliant as the miser's miser who tangles with the spirits and emerges as Father Christmas himself, giddy as a schoolboy and generous to a fault. The contrast between his "bah, humbug" attitude and his ebullient Christmas Day character continues to set the tone for this illustrious production.

Richard Doyle — like Landon, a founding artist at SCR — takes on the roles of a stuffy charity solicitor and the ghost of Christmas past with depth and authority. Keller revels in the role of Ebenezer's first employer, Mr. Fezziwig, with a kittenish Karen Hensel (who also plays Doyle's fellow solicitor) as his equally jolly wife.

A few of the show's newer faces continue to impress — most notably William Francis McGuire as Scrooge's holiday-hearty nephew Fred and Daniel Blinkoff, now in his 11th turn as Scrooge's downbeaten clerk, Bob Cratchit. Their back stories are skillfully illustrated during Ebenezer's trips into the past and present, while Gregg Daniel will scare the pants off preschoolers as the agony-imbued ghost of Jacob Marley.

Special handling is given to the teenage romance between the apprentice Ebenezer (Christian Barillas) and the poverty-stricken Belle (Erika Schindele). Barillas displays the heart and conscience absent in his older self, while Schindele is lustrous as his disappointed lady love. Xavier J. Watson displays the avaricious nature of Marley as a young man.

Jennifer Parsons once again adds some tart, spicy seasoning to the role of Mrs. Cratchit. Timothy Landfield returns solidly as the spirit of Christmas present, firmly imparting creator Charles Dickens' message of social justice. Art Koustik, another founding artist, is back gleefully in his familiar guise of Joe, the cider-dispensing stolen goods fence.

Each year brings a different batch of youngsters to the cast, and this time around, Grace O'Brien, Liam McHugh and Jillian Tabone nicely project the Cratchit progeny, while Nika Natalie Aydin crosses gender lines as Tiny Tim. They're double-cast with four other kids — Audrey Schwartz, Noel Renfrow, Tasha Zentil and Erika Maggipinto.

It's doubtful that Jerry Patch, an SCR member from 1967 through 2005, envisioned a three-decade-plus run when he adapted the Dickens literary classic for the stage back in 1980. But his project sprouted wings long ago and since has become the epitome of holiday tradition, entertaining audiences old and new for what now is a 34-year engagement at South Coast Repertory.

TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Daily Pilot.

If You Go

What: "A Christmas Carol"

Where: South Coast Repertory, Segerstrom Stage, 660 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: Tuesdays through Sundays at varying curtain times until Dec. 26

Cost: $21 to $65

Information: (714) 708-5555 or http://www.scr.org

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