Curtain Call: A Christmas Carol
What: Nebraska Theatre Caravan's A Christmas Carol (live musical theater)
One of the most popular and long-held traditions of the Christmas season has been the reading and performance of the Charles Dickens classic A Christmas Carol. Although called "a ghost story" when first published by its author in 1843, the novel is never associated with Halloween, but rather, in the 167 years since its first appearance in December 1843, A Christmas Carol has become second only to the biblical account of the first Christmas in its impact on the celebration of the season. Adapted countless times for stage, radio, and film, the novel and its antihero, the "squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner" Ebenezer Scrooge, have become synonymous with the spirit of Christmas. That most treasured of holiday traditions comes alive once again when the Nebraska Theatre Caravan's production of A Christmas Carol comes Friday, December 3 at 7:30 p.m. to Shryock Auditorium.
With a cast of twenty-eight actors and singers, the Nebraska Theatre Caravan production of Charles Jones's musical adaptation has toured since 1979, making it the most widely produced stage version of Dickens's classic tale in North America.
Stepping into the dressing gown of the curmudgeonly lead character is actor Paul Kerr, who returns to the role of Scrooge for the second year in a row. Kerr, who began his career with the Nebraska Theatre Caravan in the role of the Ghost of Christmas Present, tells Nightlife during one of A Christmas Carol's preview rehearsals that although Scrooge begins as a less than redeemable character, the transformation of spirit that makes the story a holiday favorite also makes its lead role a performer's dream.
"It's outrageously fun to play," says Kerr. "There's so many levels of emotion. One of the things I really like about doing it is being a part of people's Christmas traditions. The thing about playing Scrooge is that he sees Christmas the way a child would see Christmas, because he hasn't really 'seen' Christmas for a long, long time. And amid everyone's busy holiday season, with all their shopping and between going over to people's houses for dinner, it's a chance for them to take a breath and think about what Christmas is all about."
While A Christmas Carol is certainly not new to audiences, Charles Jones's adaptation, which combines elements of drama, music, and dance, will reacquaint audiences with both the story's whimsical and serious elements. Kerr says that, in his two years' experience of playing Scrooge, he believes the character gives audiences a chance at self-reflection that causes them, whether they like it or not, to reevaluate the dark side of their own personalities. This, he says, contributes to the story's universal appeal.
"I think that like with many great stories, people see themselves [in A Christmas Carol]," says Kerr. "I think that's why stories like Fiddler on the Roof are so popular, stories about how love can hold people and families together. This is a story about a man who has so lost touch with the world and himself and his family and his friends. Who among us hasn't felt like that at some time? Maybe not to the extent that it's happened to Scrooge, but I think that's it, that's the appeal of it."
Kerr's onstage costar, actor Mark Edmonson, agrees. Edmonson, who portrayed Ebenezer Scrooge's jolly and endlessly cheerful nephew Fred in last year's A Christmas Carol tour, is now stepping onto the clerk's stool of Scrooge's clerk and servant, Bob Cratchit. Although this is Edmonson's first time fully portraying Cratchit, Edmonson says that a lifelong love affair with the story, and with his character in particular, has prepared him for his experiences during this tour.
"I have seen all of the film versions," says Edmonson. "My dad is a huge film buff, and when I was a kid, it was a tradition that in the weeks leading up to Christmas we would watch all of the film versions, each one on a different night. It's almost like spending time with my family, it's been so ingrained into me."
Like Kerr, Edmonson tells Nightlife that he believes it is the timeless and universal themes in A Christmas Carol that help the story to retain its status as one of the world's favorite holiday stories.
"I think that it's because of the themes of this story," says Edmonson. "The story and the show are just magical. It brings so much joy. The idea of the transformation of Scrooge, it inspires people with this boundless joy, and that's addictive. It's almost as if the characters have become archetypes in our society, and because everybody knows it so well, it has that familiarity. It's almost a ritual, going to see it every year or watching the Alastair Sim version every year. You become a part of the tradition every year. The longer that tradition goes, the more power it carries, and the more potent the experience will be."
Part of the magic of this stage version comes through its fully functioning set, designed by James Outhuse, and the impact of the time-honored carols, featuring faithful arrangements by John Bennett. Edmonson tells Nightlife that the power of the music helps to take audiences back to early nineteenth century London and puts them at the heart of Dickens's fable.
"In our version, we sing all of these traditional carols, and you really grow to love them," says Edmonson. "It's just the way you feel when you're singing them. There are a lot of powerful moments in the show, and the carols we sing really punctuate those moments."
When asked if playing Cratchit ever feels like a supporting role, given that the character of Scrooge has the most lines and appears in literally every scene in the show, Edmonson does not even hesitate when saying how much he enjoys playing his character.
"Playing Cratchit is very rewarding," says Edmonson. "When I approached the role this year, I thought of it like this: If you asked Bob Cratchit if he was poor, he wouldn't have any idea what you were talking about. His central idea in this story is how much he loves his family, and there is this warm inner joy that permeates every fiber of his being because of this loving family that he gets to come home to every single day. That's what gives him the courage to get up every day and work for this terrible, awful human being every single day. At the end, when he finally gets to share that joy with this man who has been his professional antagonist, that's a huge moment for him. It makes it really rewarding for me to be able to share that with another actor on stage. That heightens the impact for me. And Paul [Kerr] is absolutely wonderful to work with every night."
Kerr says that although the story of A Christmas Carol is far from new, a new audience each night keeps the onstage chemistry and spontaneity fresh for the cast and crew, which is important since the national tour of the show will continue through December 22. Kerr goes on to say that those who come to Shryock will find something entertaining and enlightening for every member of the family, and for every theatrical taste.
"This version is not a musical per se, but the ghost of Christmas Present sings an old madrigal song, and there are some songs that are sung at Fred and Millie's party, and a big dance number at Fezziwig's," says Kerr. "It's a lot of fun. Then it can get really dark and weird. It runs the gamut for the audience. There's comedy in it, but it's not a comedy. It's not a super-dark ghost story, although there is darkness. It does a really good job of balancing all of the elements that Dickens wanted in the story. There's going to be something that everyone can take away from this."
Tickets range in price from $24 to $49, and are on sale now. For tickets, visit <http://SouthernTicketsOnline.com>, call (618) 453-6000, or stop by ticket outlets weekdays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. or one hour before performances. There are no service charges for in-person purchases, though phone and online purchases will carry service charges.
For more information, visit <http://www.SouthernLightsEntertainment.com>.
For more about the Nebraska Theatre Caravan, visit <http://www.NebraskaTheatreCaravan.com>.
who: Southern Lights Entertainment
what: Nebraska Theatre Caravan's A Christmas Carol (live musical theater)
where: Shryock Auditorium
when: Friday, December 3