Friday, December 17, 2010


I don't know about you, but I have an inexhaustible appetite for A Christmas Carol. For one thing, Charles Dickens is probably my favorite author, and I consider Carol to be the perfect story. It's humorous, dramatically punchy, and fiercely moral, ghostly and Gothic, innovative in its use of magic realism, and brilliant in the simplicity of its concept. It even obeys the classical unities of time, place and action. So I was overjoyed last year when Cabrillo Stage inaugurated a winter season with an annual holiday production of "Scrooge."

Dickens' modest little Christmas ghost story has spawned hundreds of versions on stage, film, video, and TV, over the centuries, and I've lapped 'em up like a steaming bowl of punch. There’s hardly anything even a faintly competent adaptation can do to ruin it — except sing.

It's not that I don't love musicals. But "Scrooge" (which opens again tonight for a two-week run) is a stage version of the old 70s movie musical starring Albert Finney, with indifferent songs by Leslie Bricusse. Last year, the stout-hearted Cabrillo players, dancers and chorus poured their hearts into it; Joseph Ribeiro was an excellent Scrooge, and Benjamin Holck a robust and irresistible Ghost of Christmas Present. But there are some properties that simply do not benefit from the addition of show tunes. At least not these tunes, remarkable in how undistinguished they are. Sample titles: "I Hate People." "I Love Life." "I'll Begin Again." Yawn...

If they MUST do the Carol as a musical, why doesn’t some enterprising person adapt the book from "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol," the musical cartoon version that used to run on TV every Christmas? Sure, you'd probably have to cut out the bracketing story featuring Magoo himself, but the Carol-within-the-cartoon is perfectly viable in its own right. Yes, the vintage-1962 TV animation is cheap and tacky, but THOSE were songs! The Jule Styne/Bob Merrill numbers include the lyrical "Winter Was Warm," (sung by young Scrooge's heartbroken cast-off fiancee;) the hilarious "We're Despicable," sung by a trio of grotesques—the charwoman, the laundress, and the rag-and-bone man—cackling over the late Scrooge's effects (a pivotal scene that isn't even in the Bricusse version); and the haunting "All Alone in the World" sung by the boy Scrooge, left behind after all the other schoolboys go home for the holiday. (I'm in tears just thinking about it. But don't take my word for it: see for yourself.)

These songs really enhance the action, rather than stopping it dead in its tracks.

Cabrillo's "Scrooge" is better than no Carol at all. Last year, I especially liked the festive touch of old-fashioned sweets for sale out in the courtyard and strolling carolers in Victorian dress to sing us inside. But now's the time to start sniffing out the rights to the Magoo version for 2011…

Of course, the godfather of all Christmas Carol adaptations is the 1951 British version starring the incomparable Alistair Sim as the scroogiest possible Scrooge. Shot in brooding black-and-white, it's both an unsettlingly spooky and foreboding ghost story and a dazzling celebration of Dickensian Yuletide revelry. Stream it, TiVo it, or put it in your queue, but don't miss it; Christmas just isn't as merry without it.

Speaking of durable Christmas chestnuts, the good folks over at the Aptos Cinema Weekend Classics series are getting into the spirit with special daily holiday schedules and programming. Starting this weekend, matinees will play every day through New Year's Eve. And after the fabulous Philadelphia Story (Sat-Mon), things get seasonal. Starting Tuesday, it's Miracle on 34th Street. Liberate Santa from the small screen and see him in all his plus-size glory in this 1947 family classic. Jolly old elf Edmund Gwenn stars as a Macy's department store Santa out to convince disbelieving child Natalie Wood (and her disenchanted single working mom, Maureen O'Hara) that he's the real deal. Matinees play through Friday, Dec 24, 11 a.m.

Starting Christmas Day, the venerable White Christmas takes over for a special three-day run. Bing Crosby (crooning you-know-what), Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen star. Yeah, yeah, we've all seen it six dozen times on TV, but hands up, everyone who's ever seen it on a big screen. I thought not! Trust me, 1954-vintage Technicolor makes those velvet reds and spruce greens pop on a giant screen. And that first snowfall in Vermont is truly magical in wide-screen VistaVision —especially for little California kids in the audience who may have never experienced the real thing. Plays Saturday-Monday, Dec 25 through 27, 11 a.m.

Finishing up the series is a less traditional Yuletide story, The Apartment. Jack Lemmon wants to get ahead in business during the holiday season by loaning out his apartment to boss Fred MacMurray for his adulterous trysts with a wistful Shirley MacLaine in Billy Wilder's incisive, Oscar-winning 1960 comedy. It's in from Tuesday, Dec 28 to Friday, Dec 31, 11 a.m.

In the meantime, gather up the little ones and check out an encore holiday performance of Toy Story 3D, this Saturday (Dec 18) at the Del Mar, 10 a.m., a benefit for the Second Harvest Food Bank. I'm not the world's biggest cheerleader for 3D, as you know if you read my recent column, but you might as well experience it as God intended, in the 1936 Art Deco splendor of the Del Mar's Grand Auditorium with its spanking new state-of-the-art 3D equipment. And what better vehicle than the latest Toy Story, where the lovable toy heroes from Andy's room come back as fresh, funny, and irresistible as ever. And here's the best part: admission is FREE with donation of a non-perishable food item. Talk about the holiday spirit!

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