Hartford Stage’s “A Christmas Carol”: Another Triumph

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.

Rudolph Musical Soars with Holly Jolly Christmas Glow at Bushnell

"Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Musical," the stage adaptation of the television movie on the 50th anniversary of the stop animation version. (Credit: The Bushnell)

“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Musical,” the stage adaptation of the television movie on the 50th anniversary of the stop animation version. (Credit: The Bushnell)

A snowstorm may have canceled press night for “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Musical” last Wednesday, but the blizzard of the century can’t cancel Christmas in the stage adaptation of the claymation family holiday favorite.

Fifty years since the classic Christmas story aired on television, California-based McCoy Rigby Entertainment is bringing Rudolph to life on stage in a nationwide tour that stopped at the Bushnell’s Mortensen Hall in Hartford over Thanksgiving weekend.

It turns out reindeer can fly in this production. Before the exclusive reindeer games, when the young bucks are learning to fly, cast members in white wintry outfits that blend in with the snow-covered forest set were poised to lift the actors into the air in choreographed flight. But it’s Rudolph (Lexy Baeza) who really flies, fastened to a black rope to swing our favorite red-nosed reindeer through the air at key moments, including curtain call. How fitting to see a girl playing a male character as the flying couldn’t help but make you think of Peter Pan, a role almost always played by a woman.

If you’re a fan of the movie, you’ll love the play because the adaptation by Bob Penola closely follows the storyline, only trimming up transitions to move the story along. It also cuts out Donner’s line from the movie,”No, this is man’s work,” when he refuses help from Mrs. Donner and Clarice to search for Rudolph. The line has long been omitted nowadays when showed on television because it comes off as a sexist remark in this day and age.

The stage version also has more frequent songs and closes with sing-alongs of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Holly Jolly Christmas” that had adults and kids alike in the audience belting out those holiday music favorites.

Even though it’s a live play with real people, the artistry of the stop animation from the 1964 TV film is not lost. The production has an animated look to it, from the cartoony wigs and beards designed by Anthony Gagliardi to the colorful outfits of Santa’s elves, Sam’s rolling snowman get-up and Lion King caliber reindeer costumes designed by Donna MacNaughton. Rudolph’s nose also actually glows red with the sound-effect similar to the movie.

Not to mentioned the literal animation and sing-along lyrics projected onto a scrim thanks to Jonathan Infante and the puppets. Ensemble members dressed in snow white wintry outfits bring the woodland creatures and misfit toys to life in numbers like “There’s Always Tomorrow” and “The Most Wonderful Day of the Year (The Island of Misfit Toys).”

"Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Musical," the stage adaptation of the television movie on the 50th anniversary of the stop animation version. (Credit: The Bushnell)

“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Musical,” the stage adaptation of the television movie on the 50th anniversary of the stop animation version. (Credit: The Bushnell)

The Abominable Snowman was no humble bumble, taking several people to maneuver the towering puppet on wheels and was a crowd favorite.

In a performance geared toward children, high energy is important to capture their attention. The cast from the enthusiastic elves to a thin, realist Santa to the prancing, dancing reindeer brought that to their performance.

Some of the actors picked up characteristics from the voices in the movie, particularly Dino Nicandros as the boss elf, Nick Waaland as Coach Comet and Yukon Cornelius and Wesley Edwards as Hermey, the elf who wants to be a dentist.

Jason M. Hammond played a sprightly Santa and he was well-paired with Abby Carlson as Mrs. Claus, persistently trying to fatten him up for Christmas.

The play is short and sweet, last just over an hour giving you just the right dose of holiday fun in a very busy season. It’s a cartoon on the stage if there ever was one.

Anyone who watches the Rudolph claymation movie every year will have their hearts warmed by this production. I’m glad I got to see it on its closing day Sunday before it left town.

For more information on upcoming productions at the Bushnell, go to www.bushnell.org.