God bless Bill Raymond, who has warmed our hearts as Scrooge in Hartford Stage’s annual “A Christmas Carol” over the past 20 years and who is retiring the role after this run.
Raymond is the heartbeat of the show – and he will be missed. He gives us the gift of both his comedy and more serious acting, blending them into a lovable, humorous, perhaps senile, money-hoarding curmudgeon who we can’t quite call a villain. He also puts physicality into to role, from the hip-thrusting windup to get his character’s old self down the stairs to air sword-fighting an imaginary spirit (while enjoying spirits of his own), complete with light saber sound effects.
One of my favorite parts is when Raymond takes awhile to lock up for the night and you hear the key against the locks for an extended period of no dialogue as we all watch him do it. Only then his employer Bob Cratchit asks for his wages so he has to go through the whole rigamarole again to unlock his desk. One minor note! Scrooge either forgot to lock up or he only turned one lock making it unnoticeable.
Noble Shropshire is as important to this production as a feather duster is to his opening character Mrs. Dilber, Scrooge’s maid. More notably, he doubles as Jacob Marley, who also helps Scrooge out, albeit it at the cost of overnight visits by three spirits – the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Future and Christmas Yet to Come. Shropshire has the challenge of playing a woman – often a comedic tool in theater – and a horrifying spiritual flown up from the red, smoky bowels of a stage trap door. He emphasizes classic Dickens lines like “the wicked old Screw,” Marley “died seven years ago this very night” and “dead as a doornail” (to which Raymond responds “that’s not very nice) like punch lines. His facial and vocal expressivity makes Mrs. Dilber a powerful caricature.
Johanna Morrison, Alan Rust and Michael Preston are other favorites reprising their roles as Bettye Pidgeon, the doll seller, Bert, the cider maker and Mr. Marvel, the inventor and steam enthusiast in the marketplace – all debtors to Scrooge. It’s always good to see their faces again.
Morrison is lovely as always, doubling as the Spirit of Christmas Past. Her entrance on a glittering sleigh gliding through puffs of fog is always breathtaking artistry. She also played Old Josie, pawn dealer of sorts.
Rust is jolly and fatherly as Bert and the Spirit of Christmas Present. The two children riding on his cart and sitting at the base of his festive throne as cherubs are adorable. The clever use of gold glitter for his happy juice makes his seasons sparkle and sets the tone for a giddy, drunken Scrooge.
Preston is lively entertainment and passionate as Mr. Marvel. I always thought he played the uncredited role of the Spirit of Christmas Future, but it turns out that a Hartt student is usually granted the privilege of riding a tall tricycle as the ominous sprit.
The doubling of ghost and person is symbolic of how Scrooge could have learned from the people in his life and how integral the ghosts are to his everyday life afterward. Morrison as Betty is selling dolls – a nostalgic toy from childhood – and Scrooge carries the doll he confiscated as collateral for her debt with him when he’s with the Spirit of Christmas Past. Bert sells cider, something you might drink at a party with friends to live in the moment, and Scrooge drinks cider when he’s with the Spirit of Christmas Present. It’s implied that Marvel is also the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come because of his clock hat and the contraption he scoots around carrying his invention – a steam-powered clock. There’s also the beautiful clocks projected in light on the floor. Time is always an unknown when you think about the future, which is why his cutting-edge clock invention is crucial. The mirroring also humanizes the spirits.
In a flashback scene with characters whirring through Marvel came in complaining Scrooge took his invention though it appeared it was still on the cart.
The ensemble is also very talented from a silly flirtatious exchange between Scrooge’s nephew Fred’s sister-in-law (Vanessa R. Butler) and Mr. Topper to the glow-in-the dark Victorian styled ghostly apparitions. Butler also served as dance captain. Every time the ghosts appeared they danced both gracefully and abruptly startling, clinking and pounding their chains on the floor bringing percussion to the moves. One ghost was even flown across the stage, giving it visual levels. Every now and then the spirits would lunge out toward the audience and half, never touching the spectators but not afraid to stare them down in the front row.
It’s all in good fun though and the high energy and humor in an otherwise dark Christmas story makes the show appealing for children who don’t spook easily.
I was delighted to see Robert Hannon Davis return as the endearing Bob Cratchit. He is a friendly familiar face and a kind and gentle presence. He is straight man to Raymond’s comedy, often smiling politely when Scrooge is being hilariously eccentric almost cuing us to laugh. He’s with us.
Rebecka Jones plays a composed and loving Mrs. Cratchit, but I most enjoyed her as Mrs. Fezziwig. She and Charlie Tirrell as Fezziwig, Scrooge’s jolly first employer, had extraordinary comedic chemistry.
The children in this production were as adorable as always, particularly Charlize Calcagno as Tiny Tim.
Hartford Stage casts people of all ethnicities no matter the traditional expectation for how the characters look, which is why you’ll see Terrell Donnell Sledge as a Black 30-year-old Scrooge when younger and older Scrooge are white. It’s meant to be about the spirit of the person playing the character, not just their appearance. I particularly enjoyed him as the cheerful and compassionate Fred, Scrooge’s nephew.
Flor De Liz Perez was sweet as Belle and understanding and patient as Fred’s wife.
Not much has changed with this annual holiday production, but just like a Christmas movie you only get to watch it once a year and you look forward to it. Only with theater, you have the added nuance of it being live so anything can happen, which keeps it interesting.
There were times in the show when the actors relied on their own vocal projection for sound as opposed to mikes, so sometimes some of the lines were hard to hear. Luckily Hartford Stage is such an intimate setting that it was not as big of a problem as a larger theater.
It will be interesting to see what Hartford Stage does with “A Christmas Carol” yet to come without Raymond as our favorite holiday miser.
You can hear from Raymond and the cast at talkbacks following the performances on Saturday, Dec. 10 at 2 p.m. and Wednesday, Dec. 14, 7:30 p.m.
The play was adapted by original director Michael Wilson and Rachel Alderman directed this production. Hope Clarke choreographed the show.
“A Christmas Carol” runs through Dec. 30. For more information on the production and tickets, you can visit the Hartford Stage’s website or call the Box Office at 860-527-5151.
A glimpse of “A Christmas Carol” five years ago: