One measure of a truly durable play is whether it can withstand being tweaked, revised, rethought or dramatically altered without losing its power and appeal.
Much of the Shakespearean canon lends itself to fresh perspectives, and so, too, does that wonderful chestnut of the holiday season: "A Christmas Carol." Charles Dickens' 1843 tale of holiday spirit and redemption has, over the years, been made into musicals, reset in a variety of time periods and turned into a dark ghost story. Scrooge, the play's central character, has been -- at various times -- a woman, a gay man (what was going on with Marley?), a Muppet and a cartoon (Mr. Magoo, in one of the best adaptations).
Sure, some of the approaches were ill-advised, to put it mildly. But for the most part, the essence of "A Christmas Carol" survived intact.
There is an element of reinvention to the production of "A Christmas Carol" now being staged at the San Jose Rep. However, the best thing about the adaptation by Rep artistic director Rick Lombardo may be that it has great respect for the source material, for the spirit in which it was written, and for the context of when the tale is set.
There is, now fortunately and unfortunately, a timeliness to the basics of Dickens' story. Poverty, social injustice, hunger and the great divide between classes exist today as they did in Dickens' Victorian England. The closely held idea that the spirit of the holidays can touch both those who give of themselves and those suffering through hardship still resonates.
Lombardo (who also directs) captures much of Dickens' biting social commentary ("Are there no prisons? Are there no work houses?") and the darkness of Scrooge's encounters with the four specters who haunt him on Christmas Eve. But he infuses it with a healthy dose of holiday cheer and good tidings of comfort and joy.
This is the second year the Rep has done this "A Christmas Carol," and much of last year's cast is back. As a result, the 19 cast members -- who take on dozens of roles over the course of the play -- are already functioning smoothly as an ensemble, particularly on the period music Lombardo uses very well.
The music, arranged by Anna Lackoff and overseen by music director Kate Ryan (also in the cast), is one of this production's strong suits, with lovely versions of Christmas songs ranging from "Here We Come A-Wassailing" to "Silent Night." The second act mashup of "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence" and "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" -- done as Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present watch the lonely and destitute finding comfort in the holiday spirit -- is particularly affecting.
At the heart of the show is the delightful take on Scrooge from Richard Farrell, an Oregon Shakespeare Festival veteran who played the role last year. He not only makes a terrific grouch, muttering a mean "bah, humbug," but he captures the joy of a man who finds redemption on one night.
Farrell isn't the only one lighting up the stage. Sam Misner (Cal Shakes) is back as Scrooge's nephew Fred, a man of good cheer who likes nothing better than to welcome his uncle into his home for Christmas. Ric Iverson, a newcomer to the cast, is splendid as Bob Cratchit, particularly when he grieves the loss of Tiny Tim (Zachary Boston).
Seth Margolies is an imposing presence on stage, whether playing Mr. Fezziwig or the Ghost of Christmas Present. Lizzie Calogero from the San Francisco Mime Troupe is thoroughly engaging as the Ghost of Christmas Past and in a variety of other roles. And Blythe Foster does lovely work, whether it's as Scrooge's great love Belle, Fred's wife or a fishmonger looking for a fight.
Lombardo keeps everything moving at a brisk pace, making great use of a wonderful set design by Peter Colao, the costumes of Frances Nelson McSherry and the atmospheric lighting and special effects of Dawn Chiang.
In the final scenes of this production, it will be hard for even the most cynical of us not to get caught up in the hope and sentiment of Christmas and in the joy of Scrooge becoming a man "who knew how to keep Christmas well." That is the power of Dickens' classic tale.
Follow Charlie McCollum at Twitter.com/charlie_mccollu.
'A Christmas carol'
By Charles Dickens; adapted by Rick Lombardo
Through: Dec. 23
Where: San Jose Rep,
101 Paseo de San Antonio
Tickets: $29-$74, 408-367-7255, www.sjrep.com