REVIEW: "A Christmas Carol" — South Coast Repertory, Costa Mesa

Updated: Jun 20, 2020

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.