Review: San Jose Rep’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ a reminder of what’s important

Ebenezer Scrooge (Richard Farrell) scolds his clerk Bob Cratchit (Ric Iverson) in "A Christmas Carol." (Photo by Kevin Berne)
Ebenezer Scrooge (Richard Farrell) scolds his clerk Bob Cratchit (Ric Iverson) in “A Christmas Carol.” (Photo by Kevin Berne)

There is special warmth in a beautifully executed Christmas song.

And that is how San Jose Repertory Theatre’s “A Christmas Carol” starts off. Tight harmonies and period costumes are quite the treat for those holiday folks looking to escape their search for “the perfect gift” for a few hours.

Charles Dickens’ 1843 novel, much like Tchaikovsky’s immortal ballet “The Nutcracker” is dusted off by many theatre companies in early December, and the Rep seems to be heading in the direction of making this an annual tradition. And why not? The Rep’s production feels great, looks greater, and is fused heavily with the spirit of Christmas, a joyous color palate of idealism and wonderment that brings joy to kids from one to 92.

We all know the story – the great miser Ebenezer Scrooge (a solid Meisnerian portrayal by Richard Farrell) is afflicted with a bad case of bah humbug. It’s Christmas Eve, and he is working late. Seven years to the day prior, Scrooge’s business partner Jacob Marley passed away, an old and vindictive miser himself. There is no Mrs. Scrooge to go home to; no little Ebenezer’s to wrap presents for. Nope, he is all alone, save the presence of Bob Cratchit (an empathetic Ric Iverson). As Cratchit retires home to his family, Scrooge retires to bed. What follows is a deep examination of Scrooge’s past, led by Marley’s ghost (a wonderful, vocally-textured turn by Dan Hiatt), the Ghost of Christmas past (a charming Lizzie Cologero) the Ghost of Christmas Present (a bumbling and humorous Seth Margolies) and the Ghost of Christmas Future (a really big, scary black puppet).

There are many lovely touches that really contributed to a production that finds what the meaning of Christmas is really about. Is it about the endless commercials we are inundated with on television? How about the chaos that exists this time of year in our shopping malls? Absolutely not. What this production of “A Christmas Carol” does well is move through space while telling an engaging story. In addition, of all the theatres I have attended, rarely do I hear such a crisp sound come through the theatre speakers. In relation to the storytelling, the sharp sound does wonders for the cacophony of sounds that pierce through many corners, beautifully shaping the chaos within Scrooge’s mind.

Rick Lombardo’s direction in this piece is all about pacing, with a wonderful dose of very engaging special effects. Whether it’s the image of Marley on Scrooge’s doorknob, stage snow that made my eight-year-old daughter gasp with delight or an endless amount of stage fog, each effect was not placed in the show merely for effect, but for storytelling. It captures the misty and bleak weather of Victorian London’s December, a perfect metaphor for what Scrooge’s life has become. Much of this is also credited to a rustic, pragmatic set design by Peter Colao and Dawn Chiang’s impeccable lighting design.

It’s easy to forget that old Scrooge was once a young Scrooge, who loved money more than the beautiful Belle, played sweetly by Blythe Foster. It is here where we are allowed into the process of a man shaped by greed and scorn. Because of Marley’s fate, much like Hamlet’s ghostly father, he is cursed to walk the earth unable to find rest or peace. It is his only hope, by haunting Scrooge in multiple ways, to save Scrooge from the same fate.

Lombardo’s handling of the critical subplot, the Cratchit family and their quest to find help for their son Tiny Tim (Zachary Boston, with a finely tuned solo number) was effective. Kimberly Mohne Hill played Mrs. Cratchit with pathos, a lovely matriarch who works hard to maintain a sense of normalcy for the children, while not trying to make the holiday just about her sick son. It is a difficult task considering, without affordable medicine, his days are numbered.

While the piece is most definitely ensemble driven, with many actors playing multiple roles with deftness, any production of the show is about the strength of the man playing Scrooge. In this case, Farrell’s portrayal was masterful. While it may be easy for any actor to find the anger, frown, grunt and snarl of the famous miser, there are really many levels necessary for total characterization. Notice how Farrell listens, which is so much of what this character must do – he must create truths that come from his ability to listen and process the necessities of the character in each moment. It is what gives his turn as Scrooge more than just a quintessential caricature. There is depth, there is true hurt and anguish, and most importantly, there is honest, unadulterated redemption and joy.

This production of “A Christmas Carol” does what it is supposed to do – create delicious comfort food as big and delicious as the gargantuan turkey Scrooge buys. In the chaos of the holiday season, where some of our greatest traditions have been overtaken by Black Thursday and all-out assaults on parking spaces, “A Christmas Carol” reminds us what truly matters. If we focus too much on the commercial, we miss out on the familial. Now, that would be a tragedy worthy of a great big “Bah Humbug.”

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

San Jose Repertory Theatre presents “A Christmas Carol”
Written by Charles Dickens
Directed by Rick Lombardo
The Word: A lovely, visually radiant production of the classic Dickens’ tale.
Stars: 4.5 out of 5
Through Dec. 23rd
Tickets range from $29 – $74
San Jose Repertory Theatre
101 Paseo De San Antonio, San Jose, CA 95113
For tickets, visit www.sjrep.com or call (408) 367-7255

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