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On Theater: A bittersweet yet joyful ‘Sugar Plum Fairy’ at SCR

On Theater: A bittersweet yet joyful ‘Sugar Plum Fairy’ at SCR
From left, Shannon Holt, Tony Abatemarco and Sandra Tsing Loh perform during rehearsal of "A Sugar Plum Fairy" at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa on Nov. 29. (Photo by Drew A. Kelley)

South Coast Repertory's intriguing production of “Sugar Plum Fairy” on its Julienne Argyros Stage is the ideal antidote for the abundance of holiday compassion generated by its 38th incarnation of “A Christmas Carol” on the adjoining Segerstrom Stage.

Playwright Sandra Tsing Loh, who stars in her own creation, is a true force of nature as she recounts her ill-fated attempts to thrust her 12-year-old self into the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy in her school's production of “The Nutcracker.” Never has abysmal failure been so wildly successful.

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We're tipped off that the show is going to be “out there” from the opening scene in which Loh appears decked out in full Christmas tree regalia. Her manic energy propels this craftily intelligent piece, though she shares the stage with two others performing multiple roles.

As an overlooked tween, she wanted to star in the Christmas-themed ballet as badly as Ralphie wanted that Red Ryder BB gun and she pursues it with the same creative imagination. And, like Ralphie, she shares her innermost thoughts (and assorted treats) with the audience.

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Under the wildly spirited direction of Bart DeLorenzo, Loh churns her way through the histrionic exercise with an admirable singleness of purpose, at one point attempting to crack a professional ballet company, one of the funnier segments. It shouldn't be a spoiler to relate that she winds up fanning with a flower in the “C” chorus of the eventual “Nutcracker” production.

Her comrades in arms — Shannon Holt and Tony Abatemarco — skillfully handle their varied assignments. Holt's singing and dancing acumen is beautifully displayed, while Abatemarco scores highest comically in semi-drag as Loh's traditional mother.

It's difficult to believe that the svelte Sandra Tsing Loh ever was a chubby teen, as her character claims, or that this bundle of untrammeled energy is now in her 50s — even though she admits it during the show. Loh is a fountain of intelligence and showmanship in her respective duties as playwright and performer.

Technical excellence in the SCR production includes Keith Mitchell's glittering, ever-fluid set design and Angela Balogh Calin's often-outrageous celebratory costumes. Jared A. Sayeg's inventive lighting choices and John Ballinger's throbbing sound effects complete the atmospheric holiday bouquet.

Check out Sandra Tsing Loh's rollicking “Sugar Plum Fairy” as a modern glimpse of the Christmas season, and if you sit close enough to the stage you might go home with one of the show's props. It's a bittersweet but joyful experience at South Coast Repertory.

If You Go

What: “Sugar Plum Fairy”

Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: Till Dec. 24; 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 7:45 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays (no 7:45 p.m. performance Christmas Eve)

Cost: Tickets start at $23

Information (714) 708-5555 or scr.org.

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