Every year, there are those Christmas movies you have to watch over and over again, even though you’ve seen them a million times.
The annual theatrical version of A Christmas Carol at Hartford Stage is no different. There are many renditions of the classic Dickens holiday ghost story, but Michael Wilson’s stage adaptation is the funniest one you’ll see and it’s something special that audiences treasure year in and out in Connecticut’s capital city.
And Bill Raymond never gets old as Scrooge. Actually, even though he’s played the part for years, the remarkable thing about Raymond is that he’s able to bring something fresh to the role each time. “Bah Humbug” is his signature tic and Raymond finds a unique way to say it each time.
Rather than playing Scrooge completely stern and gruff, Raymond shows Scrooge’s inner child as the character remembers the past, gets overly excited about party games, plays with a doll, air fences with an invisible villain (not to be confused with a spirit), lies down in the middle of the city to make a snow angel, drags an oversized holiday bird through the snow and uses it as a puppet, and chases after Mrs. Dilber with a feather duster. The buzzing sound effect during the imaginary sword fighting (or should I say lightsaber) scene didn’t go unnoticed and I’m sure any Star Wars fans were thrilled.
If you had told me he played Bilbo Baggins in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, I would have believed you. He is very light on his feet, moving with dainty energy, and wishes to be left alone in his drab manor. But unwanted guests (or rather ghosts) keep arriving and want to take him on a quest. Perhaps, next time he’s insert a “my precious” into his lines as he counts his gold coins?
Even when his Scrooge is trying to be serious, his quirky mannerisms emote humor, from puffing out his cheeks while shaking his head to his hunch-backed trek up the stairs with a heavy box of gold. In fact, I most enjoy watching what he does when he’s not speaking because that’s a point where his character lives off the page and his reactions are to die for.
Speaking of to die for, fans of the Hartford Stage holiday classic probably recognized Noble Shropshire (Mrs. Dilber/Jacob Marley). The range from playing a woman to a tormented spirit is impressive. His talent certainly soars, actually quite literally, in this production and the flying gave the show dimension.
Something Wilson does in his adaptation that I haven’t seen in any other versions of A Christmas Carol is show the parallels between the ghosts and people Scrooge knows in his own life teaching a real life lesson through a mystical ghostly tale. That reminds me of the Wizard of Oz. Besides Marley and his future love, the three spirits mirror the three merchants in the market who owe Scrooge money — doll merchant Bettye Pidgeon (Johanna Morrison) is reflected in the Spirit of Christmas Past (Morrison), cider brewer Bert (Alan Rust) is like the Ghost of Christmas Present (Rust) and inventor Mr. Marvel (Michael Preston) has Steampunk qualities and wears a top hat with a clock that are similar to the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (though the program never reveals who plays him or her).
The secondary characters and ensemble double as the spirit dancers, garbed in all white, masks and weapons that presumedly lead to their demise. The addition brings a signature artistry to this production and you’ll never forget the trap door of red lights and fog where they emerge. You’re warned not to enter and exit in the lower aisles because you might encounter a spirit and you surely can’t avoid them in the front row where you they meet you face to face, breaking the wall between actor and audience.
Someone said to me that this year’s version was darker and I could see that. Belle, played by Gillian Williams, who also plays Fred’s wife, is a fleeting part of the story, much like she’s a fleeting love in Scrooge’s life. She’s not at the jolly Fezziwig (Charlie Tirrell) party and a brief dance in the wintry abyss is all we see of her besides a break-up scene with the young 30-year-old Scrooge (Curtis Billings, who also plays Fred). But her “another idol has displaced me” line to “release” young Scrooge echoes, as does “Marley died seven years ago this very night,” as his older self grows tortured with his spirit visits and gives the show a more haunting element.
But the comedy and Christmas party ending always warm my heart. No matter how many times I’ve seen it and recognize the similar staging and lines, I will probably always want to keep going back. Raymond is what gives the show its signature stamp on the holiday season.