SCR’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ has evolved from a great idea into an annual rite.
So what’s the big deal about South Coast Repertory’s “A Christmas Carol”?
Is taking it in just a pleasant thing to do around this time of year? Is it one of the last places left to park the kids for a couple of hours without fear of exposing them to sex, burning cities and exploding body parts? Southern Californians enjoy one of the most temperate climates in the world; what do we care about the biting cold of gloomy London in the dead of winter? And what appeal does flinty, overstuffed Victoriana hold in the sparkling daylight and cashmere-soft nights of Orange County, whose post-war growth and entrepreneurial energies are still cresting?
“A Christmas Carol”
Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: Nov. 29-Dec.26. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 12 and 4 p.m. Sunday. Also 7:30 p.m. Dec. 23, 12 and 4 p.m., Dec. 24.
How much: $21-$65
But numbers and names and even family tradition still don’t tell the whole story. Let’s start with Charles Dickens himself.
Essentially a theatrical man, he wrote a voluptuous, colorful prose that was itself robust and rich – reading “A Christmas Carol” aloud is at least as rewarding as seeing it dramatized. Written to celebrate a holiday in which, as he said, “People open their hearts to each other,” it became an instant classic. He performed it in one of his wildly popular American tours.
Cut to the late 20th century. Theater versions abound. So do film versions, with a variety of Scrooges ranging from Reginald Owen to Alistair Sim to Mister Magoo.
By 1979, South Coast Rep has a successful children’s acting conservatory up and running. David Emmes, one of SCR’s co-founders (with Martin Benson), realizes he could do more with it.
“We saw value and growth in the program, and got a lot of feedback from parents,” Emmes said. “At the same time, we really weren’t staging anything that would appeal to a family audience, an intergenerational audience. To do ‘A Christmas Carol’ could also be an opportunity for SCR’s founding artists to team up.”
Enter Jerry Patch. As a former successful TV screenwriter and a Ph.D. candidate, he was SCR’s literary manager (some consider him the best in the country). The Guthrie Theater’s version of “A Christmas Carol” in Minneapolis seemed definitive. Emmes and Benson wanted an adaptation for their own purposes. Patch was the natural choice.
“I never saw any of the movie versions,” Patch said. “The only thing I had to go on was Dickens. It’s such a good story a gorilla could adapt it.”
Mixture of Christian and pagan traditions
Patch recognized “A Christmas Carol’s” archetypal provenance: the celebration of the birth of Christ blended with pagan tribute to the Roman god of agriculture and the Germanic tradition of Yule, plus a number of other customs and rites (like bringing green indoors) to liven up the dreary winter in the northern hemisphere. The industrial revolution nearly wiped out the medieval Christmas tradition. But by 1840 the spirit was stirring again; self-published by Dickens in 1843, “A Christmas Carol” felt like deliverance. It was a huge and instant success.
“So much of the iconography of Christmas is tied to the dead,” Patch observed. “Southern California is a long way from those traditions, but it shares with them the time of gathering with your family, of starting a new cycle. Another thing Dickens did was emphasize the idea of redemption. Scrooge is redeemed. There’s a better future in store.”
Patch spent the spring and summer of 1979 “sitting in my house in Huntington Beach at five in the morning, before my kids got up, writing about cold, foggy London. Most shows you do once and that’s it. The idea was to get this one up (and) to do again annually. There hasn’t been a year without changes. The story stays the same, but the design helps shape the text. This season Marc (Masterson, SCR’s artistic director) brought a fresh set of eyes.
“I think of it as an ecumenical, non-sectarian Christmas story. There are people who’ve come back to see every version over its 34 years.”
“It’s evolved over that time,” says John-David Keller, this production’s first and only director as well as its only Fezziwig, who in deportment easily lends himself to classic Dickens with his mix of the formidable and impish.
“At first, David Emmes thought we were playing it too much for laughs, but Jerry said, ‘It’s kids’ laughter. That’s different.’ It saved us. He wrote for actors, which made the characters easier to visualize. It’s still become a richer, deeper show over the years. We’ve kept some of the original designers. Hal Landon doesn’t need makeup anymore to play Scrooge.
“But it wouldn’t exist without the children. The lineup changes every year. Two weeks of preparation, 10 rehearsals onstage. They keep it fresh. Sixty-five per cent of the people who see the show have seen it before. Many of them have been in it before. It’s a huge occasion.”
Maybe there’s one more reason “A Christmas Carol” makes us well up.
It’s the dark season, even here. As far as the year is concerned, the party is mostly over. The news brings us daily reports of calamity. Looking back, who among us hasn’t known disappointment, frustration, anger and doubt? Or tasted grief? What can be a greater rescue, however brief, than to hear a child’s pure voice in Tiny Tim exclaim at “A Christmas Carol’s’” end, “God bless us, every one”?