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Thursday, December 15, 2005 | Editor’s Note: Voice of San Diego is embarking on a new effort to cover the arts in San Diego and give theater patrons the opportunity to provide their own reviews of shows. Below this introduction, you’ll find audience members’ reviews.

Amidst the crackle and pop static emanating from an old-time, radio blaring the voice of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the San Diego Repertory Theatre opened its production of “Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.”

What? FDR in “A Christmas Carol?” This is the latest installment in the REP’s unique tradition of presenting reimagined versions of the classic holiday tale. The REP has also done a circus version, a homeless version and a gospel version to name a few.

This interpretation takes place in the United States during the first part of the 20th Century and is set in the basement speakeasy of the requisite Ebenezer Scrooge. The show is imaginative and enjoyable, the drawbacks being uneven sound and some unrestrained cheesiness.

The ensemble features flapper showgirl ghosts, daddy-o fat cats and Prohibition hustlers swinging, dancing and jiving throughout the show. The smoky feel of the speakeasy translates well onto the stage, and Scrooge (played with ease by Greg Mullavey) staggers with deliciously dapper, tight-fisted style. He’s a guy you love to hate. There’s a smooth, house band set up on the speakeasy’s stage that revolves in and out of sight for musical numbers.

Visually enlightening, the show features some eye-popping entrances and exits: a 1920s gangster Jacob Marley enters Scrooge’s bedroom with a thunderstorm of machine-gun bullets. The showgirl ghosts disappear via a trap-door onstage and Scrooge’s torch-singing lost love takes the stage in diva fashion.

Even though the storyline itself is true to the Dickens version, it somehow seems choppier, with abrupt starts and stops. Some of this can be attributed to the sound – the theater is intimate and there’s not a bad seat in the house, but the volume levels were uneven. A terrific narrator (Victor Morris) plays a soulful jazz trumpet, but it was so loud it almost washed out the band (though I was happier to have heard it loudly than not at all).

Adding to the fragmented-feel are a couple of unnecessary scenes, like the folksy one depicting the poor in the Dust-Bowl. Clearly, the intent was to illustrate the mood of depression-era America, but the scene was painfully contrived. The schmaltz factor, admittedly present in most “Christmas Carol” presentations, is high with actors smacking too sugary-sweet in some scenes.

Stylistically, the performance is on point. The charismatic actors, the range of costumes from street-urchin to showgirl, and the sets all generate the feel of the era. Stagehands are visible but not too distracting as they facilitate scene changes dressed in 1920’s-style ragamuffin clothes. The ghosts of Christmases Past and Present are clever and the Cratchit family is loveable, without being over-the-top, unlike other characters. Songs are nice and short and Scrooge’s journey from greedy to good is presented just as you would hope it to be: A little hokey but still a holiday favorite.

“Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol,” adapted by D.W. Jacobs, is playing through Dec. 24 on the Lyceum Stage at Horton Plaza.

Everyone’s a critic. We asked theater-goers at Friday’s performance to send us an e-mail with their thoughts. Read audience reviews:

Too Many Distractions.

What is important in “A Christmas Carol” is the story, by no means how far the director goes to “embellish” the performance and impress the audience. The limit to creativity is the point where true content gets lost.

– Leon Singer, Chula Vista

Thumbs Up!

I loved this show – it truly felt re-imagined, rather than simply rehashed, like so many “Carol”s at so many other theatres. There was a real melding of theatrical genres on stage, fueled by the irresistible music of the era. The musical arrangements were wonderful, and made the songs as well as the story, feel new again.

The show is full of pizazz, jazz and sass, with sets, costumes, and choreography all working together to make the feel of the time come alive. The characters are broadly drawn, and the acting a bit uneven, but the lively show never drags, and the story builds to satisfactory climaxes, both visually and musically, just when you want it to-I especially loved the harmonies in the closing number of act 1, and the music and dancing in the opening of Act 2.

The vernacular also rings true, with dialogue that sounds straight out of a Hollywood film noir or WW II romance-and all of these people can really sing! Sure, the original Dickens story gets a bit overwhelmed, but isn’t that the point? Don’t we all know that old tale? If you can handle a change of venue for your much-beloved “Christmas Carol”, then this is the production for you!

– Jennifer Redmond, San Diego

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