SAN DIEGO — The least memorable part of "Dickens, Dining & Song," the newest Lamb's Players Theatre Christmas offering, is, alas, the Dickens.
In part, that criticism is a tribute to the dining and song--both of which are very fine indeed, thanks to an impressive chef, Paul Vida, and the six spirited and sweet-voiced madrigal singers who serenade the diners throughout the three-hour event.
But it also reflects the skimpy 50-minute adaptation of "A Christmas Carol," which is thrown in like a dessert after a 90-minute dinner of awesome roast beef and turkey in the Great Hall of St. Paul's Cathedral at 5th and Nutmeg.
Lamb's resident playwright, Kerry Meads, originally adapted the timeless story for four actors to tour schools and churches. The result is more impressive for its cleverness in condensing the story than it is for sending home the heart of Dickens' tale about a man desperately in need of reclamation and how the characters in the poverty-stricken world around him may live or die on the basis of the changes he does or does not make.
Paul Maley plays Ebenezer Scrooge and Sharon Maley (Maley's real-life wife), Eric Briner and Lori Merril play the other roles. But many of the most emotionally wrenching parts are left to the imagination: the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future who come to haunt Ebenezer; Jacob Marley, come back from the dead to warn his old friend of the doom that awaits him if he doesn't change his stingy ways; frail, innocent Tiny Tim perched on the shoulders of his father, Ebenezer's poor clerk, Bob Cratchit.
This has the unmistakable sense of a show played more for children than adults. Not only are the frightening ghosts gone, but the iciness at the heart of old Scrooge is softened into eccentric grumpiness. Bob Cratchit and his family don't really seem to be starving. This is a comfortable looking company that tells the story with fine, dramatic expression, but they don't make you feel the want, the pain and, most importantly, the stakes involved in the alterations Scrooge needs to make in himself and in his world.
Dickens' message has been sweetened and simplified. Instead of the story Dickens wrote to rail against hard-hearted businessmen going about their business in the wake of general misery, this becomes a story about a man who would get along with others better if he would just loosen up and smile.
But the story goes down easily with dinner and all the trimmings: hearty stuffing, mashed potatoes, carrots, Yorkshire pudding, served by beautifully costumed food servers and passed around the tables family-style. And the dinner and dessert buffet (after the play) goes down well in the beautifully decorated Great Hall, with twinkling lights in the trees on either side of the stage and in the green boughs wrapped around the wooden beams.
What Lamb's has attempted and largely succeeded in doing is to create a prosperous, idealized version of a 19th-Century Victorian feast and celebration. Norman Rockwell might have sketched a picture much like this.
The madrigals are lovely, and the music curls seductively around the hall, almost palpably softening the expressions on the faces of the 250 people seated at the handsomely set and decorated tables. The message is to enjoy, to relax. If you want a challenging "Carol," check out the San Diego Repertory Theatre production.
But if you want to sit back and meet some pleasant table mates in an atmosphere that exudes comfort and goodwill, this is the place.
"DICKENS, DINING & SONG"
By Charles Dickens. Adapted and directed by Kerry Meads. Musical direction by Vanda Eggington. Sets by Mike Buckley. Costumes by Veronica Murphy Smith. Stage manager is Sonja Anderson. With Eric Briner, Sharon Maley, Paul Maley and Lori Merril in "A Christmas Carol." With Veronica Murphy Smith, Mike Buckley as hosts and Paul Eggington, Vanda Eggington, Kerry Meads, Rick Meads, Christine Nicholson and Nathan Peirson as madrigal singers. At 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays and 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays with Sunday matinees at 2 through Dec. 23. Tickets are $38-$42 and $28 for children 12 and under. At St. Paul's Cathedral, 2728 6th Ave., in the Great Hall at the corner of 5th and Nutmeg streets, (819) 474-4542.