SAN DIEGO — No one wants to have to work too hard at being entertained, especially around holiday time, and one of the great virtues of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" is that the master storyteller does the work for us.
He's provided melodrama, spooks, suspense, warmth and a happy ending. His tale of a gruff and lonely soul re-examined and regenerated doesn't miss a trick: We have embittered Scrooge, adorable Tiny Tim, the ghosts of Christmases past and present, the warm and sentimental Cratchits and the warm and comic Fezziwigs. Who could ask for more?
Humbug. This Scrooge could. The Rep has mounted a different "Christmas Carol" 12 years running, and this year's musical edition is very respectable and very vanilla, which is a super flavor, but not super imaginative.
The costumes--vanilla colored--are lovely (Nancy Jo Smith designed them), making up for the neutrality of Kent Dorsey's two-level set of not-very-Dickensian shuttered flats. Peter Maradudin's lights take the best care to create appropriate atmospherics, and the company is well anchored in and committed to the material.
So what's lacking in this version, buoyed by Polly Pen's lilting score?
Opulence and variety--visual and artistic. It's harder to identify with individuals in a rotating ensemble (except for key players, the actors do a lot of doubling up), and experience shows that the most satisfying "Carols," like the most satisfying Christmases, are the ones that stick to a Currier and Ives kind of traditional Victorianism.
Here we get neither the drabness of Scrooge's counting house (Bob Cratchit tells us it's cold; it doesn't look cold) nor the glowing conviviality that should radiate from feasting with the Cratchits and the Fezziwigs. The ensemble style tends to flatten these differences--enough to also flatten out some of the story's savor.
Within these inescapable limitations, Sabin Epstein has directed energetically, casting solid principals with strong voices (notably Peter Samuel and Darla Cash).
Tavis Ross is a lean/mean Scrooge and 6-year-old Lily Estrada is the tiniest Tim in memory--a bit tentative when it comes to character, but right on key with the songs and triumphant in a cameo as the Turkey Boy. (A note states Estrada also played the role in 1985, at a mere age 4; lucky she wasn't trampled underfoot!)
Adapted by the Rep's artistic director Douglas Jacobs, this "Christmas Carol" is a repeat from last year, which also was directed by Epstein. It's not a bad, if not a galvanizing, way to spend a couple of relaxing hours, ducking the shoppers at Horton Plaza.
Performances at the Lyceum Theater, 79 Horton Plaza, run Tuesdays through Thursdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. (Week of Dec. 21-27 only: Monday-Wednesday and Saturday, 8 p.m.; Thursday, 2 and 7 p.m.; Sunday, 2 and 7 p.m.) Ends Dec. 27. Tickets: $15-$20; (619) 235-8025).