REVIEW: "A Christmas Carol" — South Coast Repertory, Costa Mesa
Hanging Up the Top Hat...
Nobody “bah-humbugs” quite like actor Hal Landon Jr. Or somersaults into a top hat and comes up ready to greet Christmas Day in style. But now, after 40 years on the stage playing Scrooge — a role he originated for South Coast Repertory’s popular adaptation of “A Christmas Carol”— Landon will hang up his top hat for good.
Joining him in retirement from the show will be its 40-year director, John-David Keller, who also portrayed the beloved Mr. Fezziwig for a number of years. As this milestone year approached, the pair spent time reflecting on the show and what it meant to each of them, and the impact it has had on more than half a million theater-goers.
“For me, this 40-year run has so many standouts,” says Landon. “Playing such a terrific role and having an extended period of time to develop it has been immensely satisfying and made me into a better actor too. And to share the success of ‘A Christmas Carol’ with the SCR family of talented actors and be able to create a true ensemble under director J-D Keller’s inspired guidance.”
One of Keller’s delights throughout the years comes from the 16 SCR Theatre Conservatory students who audition and are cast for roles that include Tiny Tim, the other Cratchit children, Turkey Boy, Girl About Town and others. “They make me cry every year,” says Keller. “I think the best part is to watch them have those ‘aha!’ moments, because I don’t think the kids realize what it means to do this show until they have their first audience and to see that audience stand up and cheer.”
Founding artist Art Koustik, one of the original actors who joined South Coast Repertory in its early days, marks his 39th year in the show in 2019 as the character, Joe. He calls Landon and Keller bright spots in the show. “I find delight in the consistency of Hal Landon in this awesome task as Scrooge, every year and in every performance,” Koustik says. “There’s also delight for me in John-David’s joy and commitment to the production and, in particular, with the younger members of the cast.”
Alex Knox is inspired by both Landon and Keller as well. Some 20 years ago, while a student in the Theatre Conservatory, Knox was cast as Peter Cratchit. Now a professional actor, this is his sixth year in “A Christmas Carol” in the role of Ebenezer as a Young Man. “Being in rehearsal is wonderful,” Knox says. “John-David is engaged with every run-through and inspires me. Hal gives it his all with every rehearsal. He sets the bar high and I love getting to watch him and model my version of Ebenezer off of him.”
As the 40th year of “A Christmas Carol” draws to a close for Landon and Keller, emotions run high. While both men appreciate what the play has meant to Orange County audiences — many new to the experience, but others so familiar with the show that they can recite the dialogue — it also has given these experienced actors many priceless memories over the years. “This show gives you the spirit of the season,” Keller adds. “It’s a gorgeous show to look at. There’s singing, there’s dancing, there’s joy and there are moments of great tenderness. It has everything we would want people to come to the theatre for.”
Debuting on SCR’s stage in December 1980, Jerry Patch’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” moved audiences back then, and even more so now in timeless universal quality as they experience Scrooge’s transformation along with the character. Back then, it had clowned more and reveled in un-Dickensian pratfalls. Not anymore. Laughs are still there, but they’re honest laughs, and a respectable depth has been found to give it the heart, warmth and empathy it deserves.
Keller’s buoyant direction also finds its darker moments, and many of the actors who have been playing their roles for decades find that time has made their performances richer. The special effects, gorgeous sets and the entire look and feel of the production remain superlative, like vintage champagne ready to carbonate, a good sign that the company knows how to hone the story’s inherent charm and keep its simple story fresh.
Like many others, Patch doesn’t adhere to Dickens’ portrait of the Spirit of Christmas Past, which describes a teenage boy with bare, muscular arms and long, flowing white hair. Instead, the character is dressed in the high style of Scrooge’s boyhood, and he’s middle-aged and slightly bossy. This characterization works well because of the impeccable performance of Richard Doyle.
Richard Doyle has played The Spirit of Christmas Past too many times to count. At one time or another, he also has played Solicitor, Joe, Mr. Fezziwig and Scrooge’s nephew Fred. Richard never portrayed Bob Cratchit. But he married one of Bob’s wives (the actress Jennifer Parsons, who has played Mrs. Cratchit since 2004.
The supporting cast, some from the 1980s and some recently brought on board, provides color, exuberance and, most notably, a sense of humor, even in the script’s bleaker moments. Ebenezer’s nephew Fred (Sol Castillo) is a rich portrait, bubbling and full of subtle comic effects, and Veralyn Jones’ Mrs. Fezziwig along with William Francis McGuire’s Mr. Fezziwig wear their roles as though they’d always been wearing them.
Rosney Mauger, as the Young Marley, provides a well-rounded portrait in a difficult role, and Erika Shindele has a marvelous moment as Scrooge’s youthful love, Belle, bidding goodbye to the nasty businessman that Scrooge has become. Timothy Landfield is also notable as Christmas Present, in his youthful bubbly self as well as his older, sadder, wiser self.
The original set was designed by Cliff Faulkner with costumes by Richard Odle. The set has evolved over time, with the current design by Tom Buderwitz. Donna and Tom Ruzika have designed the lighting every season.
Howard Shangraw appeared the first season as Young Ebenezer and as he grew older he appeared as Scrooge’s nephew Fred, a role he played through 2006. Other adult roles that have necessitated cast changes as the actors grew up are Fred’s wife, Sally, and Young Eb’s sweetheart, Belle. Hisa Takakuwa and Richard Soto played Sally and Young Eb for nearly a decade, and although they never got together on the stage, they’re married in real life.
And since we are discussing the personal side of the actors, let me share that Hal has missed only one “hat trick.” He stopped the show long enough to try again — and succeed. Hal’s battle scars include two broken toes — the little toe on his left foot seven years ago when, in stocking feet, he ran into furniture backstage, the little toe on his right foot the next year, also in stocking feet, when he ran into the foot of Scrooge’s bed.
Those Cratchits (Bob and “Mrs.”) are characters whom actors can play from their 20s into their 40s. Three actors have had very successful and long-running stints as Bob Cratchit — John Ellington from the first season until 1998, when he left the acting profession to become a minister; David Whalen took over for four years; and since then Bob has been played by SCR stalwart Daniel Blinkoff.
Among the children’s roles are the young Cratchits — Belinda (Presley Coogan alternating with Quinn Garcia), Peter (PJ Giglia alternating with Nicholas Brown), Martha (Lauren Dong alternating with Ella Webb) and Tiny Tim (Yunah Choi alternating with Lexie Morita), as well as Boy on the Street, known affectionately as “Turkey Boy” (Grady Farman alternating with Sebastian Ramirez) because he’s singled out by Scrooge to deliver the Christmas turkey — and the Christmas joy. From their “half hour” call until their parents take them home after the show, the kids are never alone backstage. SCR supplies a fun-loving staff member with the western-sounding title of “Wrangler” to serve as baby-sitter, friend, mentor and sounding board.
Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” was a bestseller when it was published in 1843, and it created an insatiable demand in the public for more Christmas stories. As a result, Dickens wrote one Christmas novella a year for four years: “The Chimes,” “The Cricket on the Hearth,” “The Battle of Life” and “The Haunted Man.”
But, it’s the original “A Christmas Carol” for which people keep coming back; it’s a warm, fuzzy part of how many of us celebrate the holidays. With it, we experience the value of love, life and family, heightened by the fact that these merits don’t last forever. And this is the equation Scrooge comes to know as he receives not only redemption, but acceptance and love with the real meaning of the Christmas spirit.
A South Coast Repertory production of Jerry Patch’s adaptation of Dickens’ novella. Directed by John-David Keller. Scenic design: Cliff Faulkner. Lighting design: Donna and Tom Ruzika. Costume design: Dwight Richard Odle. Sound design: Drew Dalzell. Music director: Dennis Castellano. Choreography: Sylvia C. Turner. Stage manager: Talia Krispel.
“A Christmas Carol” is playing at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tuesdays-Fridays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m.; Sundays, noon and 4 p.m. Ends Dec. 24. $17-$41. (714) 708-5555. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.
The Show Report
Photo Credits: Jordan Kubat