Here’s a sure sign that normalcy is returning to Orange County: We can see South Coast Repertory’s venerable production of “A Christmas Carol” again.

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Last year, we had to make do with an audio-only version of Dickens’ famous tale at the height of the pre-vaccine pandemic. But it brought us a new team. SCR founding artist Richard Doyle, who has tackled numerous roles in the show since its first production in the 1980-81 season, steps into the role of Ebenezer Scrooge. He fills the considerable shoes of Hal Landon Jr., who left the role at the end of the 2019 season — 40 years after he played Scrooge for the first time in SCR’s first production. 

And Hisa Takakuwa, who served as assistant director for 14 productions and appeared onstage in 14 more, got her first chance to direct the show.

This year, Doyle and Takakuwa are able to present their work in front of a live audience (fully vaccinated and masked, of course). Although last year’s audio “Christmas Carol” was a new version adapted by John Glore, for 2021, SCR returned to its original Jerry Patch adaptation, a faithful if unremarkable rendering of Dickens’ story.

From a theater manager’s perspective, “A Christmas Carol” is the holiday goose that lays an endless line of golden eggs. Many theater companies count on their annual “Carol” to fill coffers and bring financial stability to the inherently risky world of producing plays. As such, the theater world has a love-hate relationship with the Victorian miser, and the more cynical and profit-minded among them often do a slapdash and half-hearted job, knowing audiences will show up no matter what.

‘A Christmas Carol’

When: through Dec. 26

Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

Tickets: $34-$84

Information: 714-708-5555 or scr.org

Not SCR. Though the quality of its “Christmas Carol” varies slightly from year to year, the theater has always brought considerable talent and resources to its holiday show, and the production is altered in small but meaningful ways each time it is staged. Say what you will about Patch’s version of “Carol” — its creators make sure that the budget can be seen. Thanks to the work of scenic designer Thomas Buderwitz and costume designer Dwight Richard Odle, it’s always a visually lavish production featuring a large cast of wonderfully dressed actors. And Dennis McCarthy’s music seems both historically authentic and warmly lush.

That said, quibblers could point to some tired-looking sets and less-than-perfect scene changes (the latter will undoubtedly be worked out, as this production runs through Dec. 26). Patch’s script still has its dead spots, particularly in the second act. The kids aren’t uniformly good performers, but that’s part of the charm of seeing a show like this, isn’t it?

Really, the only big question regarding SCR’s “Carol” lies with Scrooge. Landon left an admirable legacy and a huge hole to be filled. How does Doyle do?

If you’re a Richard Doyle fan, then you’ll be both unsurprised and pleased by his version of Ebenezer Scrooge. Through the years he has been one of the most visible members of the theater’s founding company, and his talents, especially as a comic actor, are finely tuned.

A Doyle performance always features familiar tics and quirks. He excels at playing characters with a bee in their bonnet, and he can unleash a large inventory of tricks to portray annoyance, bemusement and other traits of a man who’s not happy with the world. This skill set is perfect for Scrooge, especially in the first act. His outlandish hair – long on the sides and sparse on top – gives Doyle’s Scrooge an additional touch of eccentricity.

Young Performers’ Schedule

If you’re going to SCR’s “A Christmas Carol” to see a specific young performer, keep in mind that the children’s roles are double cast. The 16 kids are divided into two eight-person teams, which alternate performances.

The Red Team features Natalie Bright (Martha Cratchit), Colin Savage (Peter Cratchit), Tessany Azizi (Belinda Cratchit), Presley Coogan (Tiny Tim), Halia Lindauer (Teen Girl About Town), ChloeLux Phan (Girl About Town), Maximillian Lalli (Boy Scrooge/Oliver Shelley) and Dylan Gorham (Turkey Boy).

The Green Team features Tess Fox (Martha Cratchit), Cooper Latham (Peter Cratchit), Sofia Mendez (Belinda Cratchit), Maddie Chung (Tiny Tim), Zoe Hebbard (Teen Girl About Town), Justine Roussel (Girl About Town), Arman Hamidi (Boy Scrooge/Oliver Shelley) and Nicholas Brown (Turkey Boy).

Doyle’s tendency to inject bumbling bits of business into his characters can get in the way from time to time. Late in the play, Patch’s script leaves Scrooge plenty of time to dither in his room, and it seems Doyle is still working out the details of these challenging moments. And there were a couple of bobbled lines on Saturday evening — issues that will undoubtedly disappear as Doyle settles into his role.

The best thing about Doyle’s interpretation, though, is that it’s not Landon’s — he doesn’t try to imitate his colleague’s interpretation in any way — yet it works just fine. Doyle’s Scrooge isn’t as athletic as Landon’s, but he’s deliciously watchable in other ways. And he has worked out his own clever version of Landon’s famous somersault (a showoff-y way to don a top hat). I won’t ruin it by describing the moment, but it’s very Doyle.

Part of the fun of seeing SCR’s “Carol” year after year is enjoying the combination of old and new faces. Daniel Blinkoff returns to his longtime role as Bob Cratchit, and as always, he finds just the right balance of pathos, humor and underlying optimism. It’s nice, too, to see Art Koustik (and hear his comically foghorn voice), like Doyle an SCR founding artist. Melody Bitiu, another familiar face at SCR, is delightful as Mrs. Fezziwig. And William Francis McGuire cheerfully chews a bit of scenery as Mr. Fezziwig. Jennifer Parsons brings a kindly, Edith Evans quality to the Spirit of Christmas Past.

Among the younger performers, Tommy Beck and Rosney Mauger both impress playing Scrooge and his business partner, Jacob Marley, as young men. 

Of course, for many people, individual performances and details of production design aren’t important. SCR’s “A Christmas Carol” has become one of Orange County’s most enduring holiday traditions, and the most important thing to know is that it’s back. 

The show brings us a soothing feeling of normalcy that we all crave right now. And that, by itself, is reason enough to see it.

Paul Hodgins is the founding editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at phodgins@voiceofoc.org.


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