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'Christmas Carol' good; unevenness prevents its being better

Published December 2005

By Jim Trageser


A Christmas Carol
Written by Charles Dickens
Adapted by D.W. Jacobs
Directed by Kirsten Brandt

San Diego REPertory Theatre
Lyceum Theatre
Horton Plaza
San Diego, Calif.
Through December 24

In this, its 30th annual presentation of "A Christmas Carol," the San Diego REP has a warm production with several moments of pure luminescence. And while well worth seeing, this year's new version of Dickens' holiday classic still is marked by a feeling that it could have been even more.

Set in a jazz nightclub just after Pearl Harbor, this version of "A Christmas Carol" is anchored by Broadway veteran Greg Mullavey, who turns in a powerful Scrooge. Victor Morris provides a comforting, avuncular narrator, while Phil Johnson gives us both a rather befuddled but charming Bob Cratchit and a truly menacing Jacob Marley.

Christmas party at Fezziwig'sChristmas party at Fezziwig's
Photos by Ken Jacques
The set design by David Lee Cuthbert has a timeworn air about it – with the main set that of a once-classy nightclub still holding onto aspirations of returning to its former glory. The costumes by Mary Larson are the equal of the set, and have that same period feel to them.

But all of this is undercut by a sloppy script and uneven direction.

The script takes a stab at rewriting Dickens' 19th Century British dialogue into mid-20th Century American hip, with Scrooge and Marley's ghost trading slang like "kingpin" and "slug" in the opening minutes. But not all the dialogue is re-written – some remains in stiff, Victorian English; it's a bit confusing at times.

Director Kirsten Brandt also can't seem to figure out if this is meant to be a farce, a musical or the straight melodrama Dickens wrote. It careens all over the place, with Ruf Yeager's charity collector and Topper done in an over-the-top physical comedy style, while the first half ends with a flag-waving showstopper of a dance scene. Throughout it all, Mullavey soldiers on true to Dickens' spirit, handling both the Victorian dialogue and the mobster slang with stoic aplomb.

Greg Mullavey (Scrooge) and Victor Morris (The Narrator)Greg Mullavey (Scrooge) and Victor Morris (The Narrator)
Nominally a jazz production, the music is used only sparingly – but then heavy-handedly when it happens. And Morris' narrator is given a trumpet, an instrument he seems at best partially familiar with as his tone continually broke throughout the performance. The man has a beautiful, obviously trained voice – why make him play a trumpet if he's not accomplished on it?

And the sharp political barbs at the current administration seem a bit, well, unseemly in a play about redemption, forgiveness and charity. Extending it to the production team's political opponents would do more to get Dickens' message across.

Still, none of these kvetches add up to an unworthy production. Dickens' tale remains one of the best Christmas stories yet written, and the cast's obvious enjoyment shines through every scene.

If the REP continues past history and brings this production back for another year or two, a little tightening of the script and sharper sense of what this production is mean to be could yet make it one of the REP's best Christmas Carols ever.

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