James Carpenter is a great Ebenezer Scrooge.
Making his fourth appearance in as many years in the American Conservatory Theater’s annual production of “A Christmas Carol,” the veteran Bay Area actor gives the kind of note-perfect performance that makes Charles Dickens’ holiday classic seem new again.
Carpenter is the solid center of this year’s revival of the 2005 staging adapted from Dickens by Paul Walsh and ACT artistic director Carey Perloff, with stage direction by Domenique Lozano.
If the show, which opened Tuesday and runs through Dec. 27, doesn’t capture the full measure of Dickens’ message of rebirth and redemption, it succeeds on the strengths of Carpenter’s sterling characterization.
This Scrooge is brilliant in all the familiar “Carol” moments, such as the opening Christmas Eve scene where the old miser scoffs at charity, recoils at the sound of children singing and dismisses the joys of the season with a single word – “humbug.”
He’s touching in the final episode, when – after visits from the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future – he’s startled and delighted to find his own long-deferred humanity.
But Carpenter’s just as wonderful in the little moments – watching his young self as a boy at school, laughing and twirling on the sidelines of Fezziwig’s party, reeling at Dickens’ terrifying specter of Want and Ignorance. You could see dozens of “Christmas Carols” and not find a Scrooge this good.
There are fine performances throughout the cast, from Sharon Lockwood’s funny Mrs. Dilber to Philip Mills’ affable Fred.
The Ghosts – David Jacobs’ Past, and B.W. Gonzelez’s Present – are well-cast, and young Calum John is a sweet Tiny Tim.
Jack Willis makes the most of his chain-rattling scene as Marley’s ghost, and Jarion Monroe is an aptly outsized Fezziwig. On opening night, Kyle Schaefer, stepping in for an ailing Gregory Wallace, was an alert, articulate Bob Cratchit.
This is a handsome production, with sets by John Arnone and lighting by Nancy Schertler lending themselves to the transitions between bustling street scenes and quiet interiors; Beaver Bauer’s costumes separate the haves from the have-nots.
Lozano keeps the two-hour production moving at a brisk pace, although the progress is occasionally slowed by the addition of musical numbers. The songs (by Karl Lundeberg) and dances (by Val Caniparoli) give the show a glitzy feel that dulls the emotional edge.
But Carpenter supplies the human touch. As long as he’s onstage, this “Carol” glows from within.
A Christmas Carol
Presented by American Conservatory Theater
Where: 415 Geary St., San Francisco
When: 7 p.m. Dec 11-12, 17-18, 19, 22-23, 26; 5:30 p.m. Dec. 13, 20, 27; 2 p.m. Dec.10, 12, 16, 19, 23, 24, 26; 1 p.m.: Dec. 13, 20, 27; closes Dec. 27
Tickets: $14 to $102
Contact: (415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org