Regional Reviews: San Francisco
American Conservatory Theatre's A Christmas Carol is a Resilient Production
Also see Richard's review of Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol
What's Christmas without the American Conservatory Theatre production of Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol? This perennial production premiered in 1976 and it has been seen by over 800,000 persons during its 27 years of 832 seasonal performances. Scrooges has been played by some of the greatest San Francisco actors, including unforgettable portrayals by the late William Patterson and Sydney Walker.
Once again African American Steven Anthony Jones takes over the role of the penny-pinching Scrooge, who takes the joy out of the holiday until the last scene. I confess when I first saw this very talented actor and heard his wonderful theatrical voice in 2001, I thought him wrong for the role. His Caribbean accent in Victorian England did not ring true. The production that year was much darker, with some of Lee Hoiby's spirited music missing, especially in the big dance scene at Fezziwig's workplace, and many of the scenes were sterile.
A Christmas Carol productions with Mr. Jones in the lead have continued to get better each year, and more of the delightful old English seasonal music by Hoiby has been re-installed. The scenes have become brighter and more cheery, and Mr. Jones slowly has become Ebenezer Scrooge. This year he is the old curmudgeon sans the Caribbean accent. He is a joy to watch as he prances about the stage with his nearsighted squint and gruff voice. His "Bah, humbug" rings through the theatre in those opening scenes. His laughter at being alive on that Christmas morning is so infectious, you can't help but get into the holiday spirit.
Craig Slaight's direction flows smoothly, and each scene becomes a Currier and Ives painting with a very large cast of A.C.T. students playing the wonderful children and speaking parts. The opening scene of a London street in Victorian times is beautifully accomplished with the jolly music of the composer. The earth tone costumes by David Draper and Robert Morgan are beautiful and so in tune with the times. You sort of wish Scrooge won't foul it up. The Fezziwigs' ball is beautifully danced, and A.C.T. alumnus Brian Keith Russell and Bay Area favorite Cindy Goldfield as the party-loving Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig are as jolly as Mr. and Mrs. Clause.
Jomar Tagatac is excellent as young Scrooge, and he displays the more sympathetic side of Scrooge as a young man. He has a beautiful trained theater voice, shown to great advantage as the actors are not miked. Sarayu Rao is charming as young Scrooge's fiancée Belle Cousinss. They work wonderfully together.
Tommy A. Gomez plays the narrator and ghost of Christmas Present, and he is persuasive in the roles. Jud Williford plays Bob Cratchit in a comic vein that is charming, and all of the Cratchit family members are irrepressible, right down to Tiny Tim played by Austin Green. Particularly interesting is 13-year-old Nicholas Taber who gets into the spirit of the scene as the second youngest Cratchit. Andrew Fonda Jackson is effervescent as the good-natured nephew Fred.
Robert Blackman's toy box set in the center of the stage dominates the whole area as a stage-within-a-stage, with various pewter-like toys attached to the set. The top of the toy box becomes a miniature stage in several scenes. As the one hour 40 minute no intermission production moves toward the end, various parts cut away until finally, the complete set is gone. It is an ingenious design. Kudos to Peter Marauding's lighting direction which sets the mood for each scene, including the brilliant lighting in the final scene when the whole cast of over 50 persons sing a stirring melody. It truly puts the audience in a festive mood as they leave the theatre.
Charles Dickens said it best about A Christmas Carol: "Happy, happy Christmas, that can win us back to the delusions of our childhood days, recall to the old man the pleasures of his youth, and transport the traveler back to his own fireside and quiet home".
A Christmas Carol plays through December 24 at 2 pm at the Geary Theatre, 415 Geary St, San Francisco. For tickets call 415-749.2228 or visit www.act-sf.org. A.C.T.'s next production is The Gamester by Freyda Thomas, which is based on Jean-Francois Regnard's Le Joueur and opens on January 6th.