For the first time in its 30-year history of producing various versions of "A Christmas Carol," the San Diego Repertory Theatre set Charles Dickens' classic tale in the United States at the turn of the 19th century.
Amid the Great Depression, two world wars, Prohibition, the jazz era and an unprecedented period of advancement and expansion in America, the setting gives this robust cast and director Kirsten Brandt (former artistic director for Sledgehammer Theatre) lots of creative room to play. Though exuberant and visually dramatic, this somewhat patchy "Carol" doesn't live up to its potential.
Christmas present is some two weeks after the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. Costumes by Mary Larson, original music by Steve Gunderson (played by a four-piece band), and David Lee Cuthbert's always gratifying scenic and lighting design add charming touches of jazz-era swank and gangster grit. Scrooge, played solidly by Broadway veteran Greg Mullavey, owns a run-down jazz club. In its heyday during Prohibition, Scrooge ran the business side while his former partner was a rum-runner, before Marley was gunned down in a gang war.
Phil Johnson, in dual roles, is better suited to the appealing, fumbling Cratchit than as Marley, who looks not so much a gangster as a private eye and sounds more like a lame caricature than an intimidating thug ghost. The Cratchit family still have that syrupy sweetness, and Rebecca Lauren Myers' Tiny Tim has an angelic voice and big heart.
The ghost of Christmas Past appears as a trio of blonde lovelies (Seema Sueko, Jeannine Marquie and Jenn Grinels) sporting Moulin Rouge-inspired burlesque outfits and oversized feather fans. Christmas Present is played by Jason Heil in pilot outfit, who flies Scrooge to the Cratchits' house and to a Navy ship far from home, at war. Ruff Yeager plays an ominous Future Ghost, silent and imposing, who carries knowledge in a briefcase in Brandt's own film-noirish MacGuffin nod to Tarantino.
The cast of 17 breathlessly morph into a multitude of characters, but some of the scenes whiz by and can make it difficult to keep track of who's who. The jazz music is used to good effect, including Victor Morris' trumpet-playing narrator and especially Lisa H. Payton's strong and soulful voice as a former love of a young Scrooge.
Noted choreographer Jean Issacs provided the dance moves, which range from quirky and comic psuedo-Elizabethan Vogueing to high-kicking swing dancing. And there are some familiar Sledgehammer characteristics here from familiar Sledgehammer artists -- Yeager's stylized movements as Future Ghost, Cuthbert's videography/projection work, Brandt's overly obvious insertion of political commentary aimed at the current administration.
Through all the action, sentimentality, music and on-again off-again Chicago wise guy dialect, the production is a bit disjointed. This "Carol" doesn't quite know what it wants to be. Is it a musical, a farcical comedy, a melodrama? It's a little bit of everything, and in not committing one way or another, it loses definition.
Ultimately, "A Christmas Carol" is a story about repentance and redemption, and that does come through, along with some swell tunes, kicky dancing and punchy new dialogue. But perhaps another iteration -- with some fine-tuning -- might turn this into the truly enjoyable, inspired production that it almost is.
PROGRAM: Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," adapted by D.W. Jacobs Organization: San Diego Repertory Theatre
Dates: Through Dec. 24
Show times: Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.; Sundays at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.; plus Saturday matinees 12/17 and 12/24 at 2 p.m., and a Tuesday performance 12/20 at 7:30 p.m.
Location: Lyceum, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown San Diego
More information: (619) 544-1000, www.sandiegorep.com
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