When a Mr. Magoo movie, Donald Duck's uncle and a 1975 porno (seriously, look up The Passions of Carol on imdb.com) are all based on your story or character, you know you've finally made it. And Charles Dickens' 1843 novella A Christmas Carol is definitely an It, as it has been the subject of countless film, radio, television, theater, opera and other adaptations, parodies and bastardizations.
Unfortunately, the familiarity of the story has also made it so ubiquitous, particularly on local boards (at last count, some four theaters were doing some version of it this month), that many roll their eyes at the thought of yet another production of yet another version of a story that has been ground into the dust. But here's the thing: This comfortable-as-your-dad's-favorite-pair-of-slippers tale, which ranks with the fat guy in the red suit and the baby in the manger in terms of Christmas iconography, has never felt more relevant.
At least that's the impression after seeing the grand pappy of all Carols in Orange County: South Coast Repertory's, which is staging it for the 37th consecutive year. Anyone who has viewed the show knows what they're getting: a huge cast; terrific costumes and sets; singing and dancing (a little too much of each for these tastes); and Hal Landon Jr., a theatrical treasure if one has ever existed in Orange County, as Scrooge. At the crisp young age of 75, Landon is still donning the red scarf, still effortlessly navigating the somersault onto the bed and somehow managing to land on his feet with his hat atop his head, and, most important, still delivering an honest, believable, multifaceted performance.
As with Landon, nothing substantive seems to have changed from one year to the next. (This is the third time in 20 years these orbs have espied this production.) There are always new faces in the ensemble, but it's the same Scrooge, the same Jerry Patch adaptation and the same director, John-David Keller, at the helm. But instead of a show that seems as if it's running on fumes, this one feels as though it has plenty of vitality left
Part of that, obviously, is Patch's emphasis on illuminating some of the darker passages of Dickens' original tale, such as the harsh toll exacted on both societies and individuals by unfettered capitalism and the greed necessary to sustain it, as well as the loss of individuality and spirit when work and profit become more important than decency and compassion. But another reason why this Carol seems so compelling are the times we live in. A billionaire businessman with a less-than-stellar record for treating people kindly has been elected president, in some part, by fanning the flames of divisiveness through his hateful rhetoric. A country that instead of coming together seems content with splitting into factions and dismissing others as racists or snowflakes. And there is the discomforting feeling that things are going to get worse before they start improving.
All of that works against the most existential line in this production, one that is lifted nearly word-for-word from Dickens' original, but which, for whatever reason, takes on added resonance in Patch's adaptation. Delivered by Scrooge's nephew Fred (a likeable William Francis McGuire) early in the play, it comes in his appeal to Scrooge to realize that Christmas is the one day of the year when people seem to “open their shut-up hearts freely and to look upon one another . . . as fellow passengers to the grave and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”
That is underscored soon after, when Marley's Ghost (a powerful Larry Bates), burdened by chains forged after a lifetime of money-grubbing, appears and rails against Scrooge for saying he was always good at business: “Business! Mankind was my business! The common welfare was my business. Charity, mercy, patience, kindness were all my business!”
Looking around America in December 2016, or at least looking at it through our interweb prism, there doesn't seem to be much charity, mercy, patience or kindness at work. It's as if we've either embraced—or allowed ourselves to be beaten by—an external manifestation of our inner Scrooge. We are petty, harsh and vindictive, mired in a self-absorption fueled by isolation and a paranoia that everyone's out to pick our pockets in some fashion.
Scrooge needed a long dark night of his soul to realize that there is an alternative. It's going to take more than a few of those nights for America to wake up, and it may have to fend off its demons before its kindlier ghosts appear to lead it to its threshold. But stories and productions such as this A Christmas Carol are inspiring reminders that the choice abides in each of our hearts; we just have to choose to make it.
A Christmas Carol at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555; www.scr.org. Tues.-Fri., 7:30 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m.; Sun., noon & 4 p.m. Through Dec. 24. $23-$72.