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Theater Review : San Diego Repertory Version Is the 'Gospel According to Dickens'


SAN DIEGO — Have you heard the voices of "A Christmas Carol" too many times? Do you want to cringe when violins mix with the rustle of starched Victorian dresses under the soft sprinkle of artificial snow?

Forget the quaint picture postcards. The San Diego Repertory Theatre has dusted off the Dickens classic and unleashed the powerful passion of its message in a new gospel version at San Diego's downtown Lyceum Stage through Dec. 26.

This company's Scrooge-for-the-'90s comes complete with a laptop computer and cellular phone--in a foot-stamping, rafter-raising show as passionate and penetrating as a revival meeting.

Remarkably, this version, aptly subtitled "The Gospel According to Dickens," sets its sights on nothing less than revival of the soul. Even more remarkably in these jaded times, it works. If you can leave this show without resolving to dissolve the last hardhearted bit of Scrooge in you, just go ask Jacob Marley to pass the chains.

Osayande Baruti and Rep artistic director Douglas Jacobs have adapted the classic Dickens tale to open in a church where the minister (Ron Taylor) tells the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge (Richard Farrell). The minister serves as narrator and commentator throughout Ebenezer's introduction as the stingiest man alive and his redemption through the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future.

San Diego Rep, long a leader in contemporary, multicultural work, has toyed with ways to make its annual production of the show more relevant. Twice, they tried casting the Dickensian poor as today's homeless--an ambitious idea that had mixed results. Last year, they trotted out a version of this gospel show. Even then it made a powerful statement, but with unevenness in the execution.

In this version--the Rep's 18th year of producing the show--co-directors Baruti and Sam Woodhouse have hammered out the kinks to create a smooth, supple and irresistible finish. The show asserts a time and place with swift, absolute authority.

The 30-plus musical numbers, backed by a vibrant four-member band, flow quickly as much of the narration is incorporated in the lyrics of the songs--more than half of them original, stirring compositions by Baruti.

Farrell portrays Scrooge as a thin, pinched rich man--one can imagine him fretting about the tax changes coming in 1994--but subtly plants the seeds for his ultimate metamorphosis.

When he finally opens up his heart to sing the old standard "Feel the Spirit"--one can feel his brittle nature cracking and melting like ice under a blazing sun.

The entire 14-member ensemble--who handle a total of 47 roles--offers a cornucopia of heart, soul and wit. The show is packed with showstoppers including Mary Grimes as Mrs. Fezziwig in the show's first explosive rendition of "Feel the Spirit" and Melinda Gilb, a sweet-voiced singer of exquisite control, radiant as Christmas Past.

It's supported by marvelous dancers, acrobats and dramatic performers. Ron Taylor establishes the minister-narrator role with a strength that anchors the plot. An earthy, affectionate banter between Paul Jackson-Miles and Grimes as Mr. and Mrs. Cratchit breathes life and sympathy into these familiar characters.

Carl Overstreet's tender, fragile Tiny Tim earns his tears, DeBorah Sharpe brings a sexy verve to the housekeeper Scrooge mistreats--to his ultimate regret.

Gregory Linus Weiss captures the pain of the young Ebenezer, while Ron Christopher Jones establishes the good-heartedness of Scrooge's nephew Fred.

Antonio T.J. Johnson's Ghost of Christmas Present--a joyous, larger-than-life creation--gives startling way to his Ghost of Christmas Future--a bare-chested, silent figure straining painfully under a heavy cross.

Baruti's electrifying choreography is seamlessly interwoven with the songs and action. Jeanne Reith's richly textured costumes suggest a dark tinge of realism on the other side of the bright message, a sensation underlined by lighting designer Brenda Berry's feel for shadows.

Victoria Petrovich, a set designer with a keen sense of the surreal, creates walls of blue sky with clouds in which the doors and windows suggest paths to heaven itself.

This production is one way of getting there.

* "A Christmas Carol: The Gospel According to Dickens," San Diego Repertory Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.; Dec. 11, Dec. 22 and Dec. 24 at 2 p.m. No performance Dec. 25. Ends Dec. 26. $20-$25. (619) 235-8025. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

Richard Farrell: Ebenezer Scrooge

Melinda Gilb: Ghost of Christmas Past/Miner/Mrs. Dilsber

Marc Gould: Street Urchin/Youngest Ebenezer/Boy Cratchit/Ignorance

Mary Grimes: Mrs. Fezziwig/Mrs. Cratchit

Antonio T.J. Johnson: Deacon/Ghost of Christmas Present/Ghost of Christmas Future

Ron Christopher Jones: Fred/Manservant/Country Boy/Sailor

Paul Jackson-Miles: Bob Cratchit/Mr. Fezziwig

Carl Overstreet: Tiny Tim

A San Diego Repertory Theatre production. Adapted by Douglas Jacobs and Osayande Baruti from the Charles Dickens story. Directed by Osayande Baruti and Sam Woodhouse. Music and lyrics by Osayande Baruti. Choreography, musical direction and arrangements: Osayande Baruti. Sets: Victoria Petrovich. Costumes: Jeanne Reith. Lights: Brenda Berry. Sound: Mitch Grant. Choir director: Ricky Womack. Stage manager: Andy Tighe.

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