It's a Wonderful Life dies a miserable death. Miracle on 34th Street? Nothin' but a second-rate magic show off the beaten path. Anybody with the least eye for pop culture knows the only real holiday movie is A Christmas Carol. And the only real Carol is the one with Alistair Sim. Sim's turn as slimeburger Ebenezer Scrooge lifted that 1951 film to cult-legend status, kind of like what Paige Abbott did for Anus Magillicutty or John Travolta did for Battlefield Earth.
(C'mon. They only have to be classics. Nobody said anything about good here.)
But we're not talking film. We're talking live theater, that wondrously malleable art form that makes its living off character shadings and insights the cinema can't hope to capture. The San Diego Repertory Theatre has banked on as much with its Carol stage adaptations during 14 of its 30 seasons. It's true this year's entry has its challenges-but mostly, those challenges are in the hands of the audience, whose take on Sim's surly Scrooge might skew its expectations. Indeed, the central character here is different from anything you may have conceived-but once that understanding is under your belt, you'll probably find a lot to like about this show.
Charles Dickens' novel of the same name was set in the roughhewn London of 1843. It made about four and a half cents on its release, and Dickens eventually had to go to court to quash a rival's efforts to pirate the text. That's exactly the kind of flap Scrooge would have eaten up-and unlike Dickens, he probably would have made money off the suit. Such was his flair for business, and such was his talent for hoarding riches as an outlet for his bottomless bitterness over matters familial and romantic.
"Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?" he spits as two befuddled fundraisers seek alms for the homeless. Those of lesser means, the charity workers add, may even face death as winter sets in. "They'd better be about it, then," Scrooge shoots back, "and decrease the surplus population."
Enter adapter D.W. Jacobs and director Kirsten Brandt, who've set the show in 1941 America, on the Christmas Eve after this country's declaration of war on Japan. Hokey? Yeah, for a second-until Scrooge (Greg Mullavey, of 1970s TV's Mary Hartman! Mary Hartman!) shows up with the omnipresent dollar signs in his eyes. Not only do his enterprises stand to make a killing off World War II and 60 years' industrial expansion, he even capitalizes on his neighborhood's rampant escapism-as America's pre-Depression booze glasses were filled to overflowing, he and partner Jacob Marley (Phil Johnson) ran a rockin' speakeasy they bought from crony Albert Fezziwig (Ruff Yeager).
And as in the novel, the repentant Marley's in a unique position to predict the three spirits' visitations to Scrooge. He was killed in a gangland shootout in 1934. Hah!
Y'all know what happens from there. And amid it, Jacobs, Brandt and Mullavey don't try to rehash Scrooge so much as rethink him. There's a harlequin quality to Mullavey's voice and mannerisms, almost an endearment that puts a mildly lighter spin on his relationships with others. That takes some getting used to-but Mary Larson's spirited costumes, Jean Isaacs' activist choreography and Steve Gunderson's thrifty jazz and swing arrangements help legitimize the approach. This time, Scrooge isn't a pathological schemer so much as just another ulcer-prone capitalist buttwipe. And soon enough, it works.
Jason Heil's performance as the Ghost of Christmas Present doesn't hurt. He notes the human embodiments of want and ignorance as part of the set-up for Scrooge's epiphany-but he keeps his wits about him as he does it, resisting the temptation to darken the character. The same goes for Victor Morris' narration and David Lee Cuthbert's tech design concepts. Their work keeps things busy without making them feel overdone.
You'll remember Brandt as the former artistic director of Sledgehammer Theatre, which recently lost its venue to a retrofit ordinance. Just as Sledge will absorb the hit, so too does Brandt's Carol morph into a resilient statement on the season and the swell of history that colors it-Alistair Sim's deserved place in movie lore notwithstanding. Good work.This review is based on the opening-night performance of Dec. 9. A Christmas Carol runs through Dec. 24 at the Lyceum mainstage, 79 Horton Plaza, Downtown. $27-$42. 619-544-1000.