Hartford Stage’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ Gets a New Scrooge

Scrooge

Michael Preston as Scrooge in Hartford Stage’s “A Christmas Carol – A Ghost Story of Christmas.”                                                                                                                          Photo Credit: T. Charles Erickson

“A Christmas Carol” is nothing without Ebenezer Scrooge and Hartford Stage’s version just isn’t the same without Bill Raymond.

This year, the 20th anniversary of the beloved Connecticut holiday production, brings a new Scrooge in Michael Preston, who longtime patrons of this show will recognize as former regular Mr. Marvel, the steam-fueled clock inventor.

He has tough shoes to fill taking over for Raymond, who reprised the role for 17 seasons and retired last year. Raymond brought comic nuances in physicality, movement, expression and character choices that are greatly missed.

But he brings his own take on Scrooge that is different, as it should be. He is more gruff and stern, coming off as a senile curmudgeon losing his mind with age. The further along the story and spirit journeys take him, the lighter his humor and demeanor becomes and the more comedy and childhood heart Preston introduces.

Standing alone he does a fine job, but he unfortunately has to compete with our memory of Raymond’s Scrooge and does not measure up to him. But to be fair, no one can. That is the beauty of theater as actors rotate through roles. Each person puts his or her own stamp on a character to put a fresh spin on the story. Preston does have one thing on Raymond though drawing audience awe and delight– his juggling and balancing acts. I do however miss him as Mr. Marvel because he is stronger with comedy and a more upbeat, impassioned character. That element he brought to Scrooge later in the play had the most spark – like when he hides and sneaks up on Mrs. Dilber (Noble Shropshire).

“Playing Scrooge is really a dream come true for me,” Preston said in a press release. “I get to pay homage to Bill but also make the role mine. I’m completely honored and humbled. ‘A Christmas Carol’ is at the very generous heart of the Hartford community. With the 20th anniversary of ‘A Christmas Carol, Michael Wilson’s adaptation is even more important in this particular world that we’re in – the idea that change is possible and that the spirit of humanity resides in even the most troubled being.”

 

scrooge pjs

                                                                                                                       Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson

Since Preston is Scrooge, you can expect a new Mr. Marvel. While Preston was iconic in the role, John-Andrew Morrison was delightful in his own right, pouring vivacious mirth into the watchworks vendor.

Mr Marvel

Michael Preston as Scrooge and John Andrew-Morrison as Mr. Marvel.                                                                                                                                                                        Photo Credit: T. Charles Erickson

 

Rebecka Jones replaces the elegant Johanna Morrison as the Spirit of Christmas Past, carrying on the legacy of the sparkling role and keeping the sleigh on the same caliber path.

Ghost of Christmas Past

Rebecka Jones as the Spirit of Christmas Past and the children of “A Christmas Carol.”                                                                                                                                            Photo Credit: T. Charles Erickson

Kenneth De Abrew is an undeniably dynamic addition to the cast as the affable lunch-loving First Solicitor, taunting Undertaker and jovial Mr. Fezziwig.

Fezziwig

Kenneth De Abrew as Mr. Fezziwig,Shauna Miles as Mrs. Fezziwig and the cast of A Christmas Carol.                                                                                                            Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson

Every production brings new children to the cast, each adorable and professional from the carolers, boy who delivers the prize turkey as big as him to Scrooge, and Bert/Ghost of Christmas Present’s children to the Cratchit kids and Tiny Tim.

While the casting changes bring a new chapter to “A Christmas Carol,” the veteran actors continue to excel, making you want to come back.

Aside from Raymond, Shropshire has always been the backbone of the Hartford Stage tradition as Jacob Marley and Mrs. Dilber. There’s something familiar and endearing about his performances as both characters. He shows true versatility as an actor to play the sweet yet candid housekeeper Dilber and the frightening spirit of Marley. And that is saying something, given he plays both male and female roles!

Alan Rust returns as the adored, jolly Spirit of Christmas Present and cider seller Bert. Robert Hannon Davis returns as Scrooge’s loveable assistant, Bob Cratchit.

spirt of christmas present

Alan Rust as the Spirit of Christmas Present.                                      Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson

They are just two of the doubled roles, playing parallel characters that straddle Scrooge’s Victorian England reality and the spirit world or past.

Terrell Donnell Sledge plays both Fred and Scrooge at 30, drawing connections between the two as Scrooge reflects on his life. You see a stark contrast between joyful, kind-hearted Fred and Sledge and Preston’s portrayals of Scrooge in his dark days from 30 to present. Fred is everything Scrooge could be if he weren’t so consumed by wealth and greed.

He is well paired with Vanessa Butler, as both Fred’s wife and Scrooge’s lost young love Belle. She dazzles and glows at both characters, having played Fred’s sister-in-law previously. It was the first time I really understood the importance of having the same actor play both characters – Scrooge is uncomfortable with Fred being married because it reminds him of the pain of losing Belle. It’s another way we see the contrast between Scrooge at 30 and now and Fred. Fred’s wife also parallels with his late sister Fran, singing the same Barbara Allen song she does.

The musical element of this rendition of “A Christmas Carol” is what makes it unique from the dancing spirits to the harmonious partygoers. The artistry of the singing and dancing serves scenic and historical purpose also – enriching us in the culture of Dickensian Victorian England. You even experience it in the writing with the quips at Charles Dickens’s language and expressions in the original stories from calling “dead as a doornail” disrespectful to the repetition of “Marley died seven years ago this very night” and Scrooge’s “Bah Humbug!” The games Fred and his guests play at his Christmas party like “I Love My Love with an A” and “Yes and No” draw us further into Victorian entertainment.

All of these arts and cultural details allow the ensemble to shine. Even minor characters have their spotlight moments like the Sarah Killough as Fred’s bookish, flirtatious, and giddy sister-in-law, also a ghostly apparition and the dance captain, and Jake Blackslee debuting with Hartford Stage as socially awkward bachelor Mr. Topper.

The flying and dancing spirits, Marley, and cycling Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come emerging from mist and a red, hellish glow from a trap door are always the staple of “A Christmas Carol,” bringing a Halloween spookiness and darkness to this otherwise cheerful ghost story.

Scrooge ghost of christmas past

                                        Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson

The set and visual effects from the golden sparkles and glitter that fall from the sky as the spirits of Christmas Present and Past enter to the lighting are as stunning as always.

Be prepared to experience your first snow of the season at the end. This reviewer must have been sitting right under the drop point, leaving the theater with paper snow coating my hair in clothes. But it was welcomed fun, making me feel part of the story. Because the only way stories like “A Christmas Carol” are passed on from generation to generation is having someone to listen to them and retell them.

And “A Christmas Carol – A Ghost Story of Christmas” is a story I want to keep hearing and seeing Hartford Stage tell every holiday season.

The holiday favorite runs through Dec. 30 and tickets start at $25. More information on the production and ticket sales is available at www.hartfordstage.org/christmas-carol.

 

 

 

 

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‘Christmas on the Rocks’: Every Time a Holiday Character Takes a Shot We Hear Christmas Stories With Twisted Plots

Hermie

The bartender (Tom Bloom) listens to Hermey (Matt Wilkas). Photo Credit: TheaterWorks

A bar once new to Hartford has become a staple to visit come Christmas time. You know the name of every character who comes in, though the bar’s name escapes you. It’s the kind of bar where you spill your holiday sob stories to an old-time bartender over a “root canal” mixer or wild turkey shot. It is a Christmas cocktail with a kick – and that is “Christmas on the Rocks,” a holiday tradition of twisted Christmas stories at TheaterWorks.

The bar has the same charming, realistic look every year, complete with a leg lamp, Christmas decorations, and a seemingly working tap. Mostly the same characters filter in and out telling stories you’ve heard before – Ralphie from “A Christmas Story,” Hermey the elf dentist from “Rudolph,” Karen from “Frosty the Snowman,” Tiny Tim from “A Christmas Carol,” Clara from “The Nutcracker,” and Charlie Brown. So what keeps people coming back? It might be the nostalgia of watching holiday classics at home in your pink fluffy bunny pajamas. But it’s also because every year, the menu has a little bit of a makeover.

While the show mostly features the same grown-up Christmas characters bemoaning their real-world gripes annually, this year’s production introduces a few new personalities to the line-up.

Zuzu (Jenn Harris) from “It’s a Wonderful Life” replaces the “Miracle on 34th Street” vignette. While the concept of an angsty, paranoid adult Zuzu afraid of bells and wing-seeking angels had promise, the sketch didn’t have the same level of edge, humor and intrigue as the other stories. It was more tragic than amusing and didn’t add much to the string of Christmas tales. However it built as it went along and came to an endearing, crashing close with an Amazon box full of laughs.

The show also introduces a new bartender – Tom Bloom, who has a resume that includes Broadway and television. He is like the wise, elderly neighbor next door who will put you in your place when crossed but who will always be there to offer sound advice and lend an ear. He has to face a lot of characters with a dash of crazy and serious issues, but he listens unconditionally nonetheless and gives them a shot of genuine kindness and perspective to guide them back on track. Most of them.

In the later vignettes, he is more judgmental and harsh with the characters. He embodies the spirits who visit Scrooge to Tiny Tim, teaching him a lesson. He cracks through the manic, jealous, age-conscious nut that is Clara, sinking his teeth into her cruelty but also dishing her sympathy.

Whereas the former bartender was like an endearing Father Christmas, Bloom was more like us – the audience. He is the receiver of stories and has his own preconceived notions of the characters that are challenged. Sometimes we see his judgement and other times his support, just as someone hearing a story or watching a movie is a listener. You have to take the narrator’s words for truth no matter how far-fetched and absurd it sounds, you’re sucked into the world of the story and you react stronger to some parts more than others. You pass judgements. In that regard, a bar is a perfect venue and metaphor for storytelling because the bartender naturally falls into the role of the captive listener. They are all-knowing in a sense just like the reader as you get a third party window into the world of the storyteller.

The beautiful thing about “Christmas on the Rocks” is the structure of individual one-act plays anchored by the bar setting to a flowing, connected narrative. It makes sense because the people that come into a bar all lead separate lives with different stories and the bar brings strangers from different walks of life together.

The one narrative that leaves our bartender mostly silent is in “My Name Is KAREN!” when he is gagged with a fluffy Santa and bound with Christmas lights as Karen from ” Frosty the Snowman”broadcasts her vlog live and answers her fans’ Tweets. The sketch written by the two other actors in the production, Jenn Harris and Matthew Wilkas, is one of the newest and most memorable vignettes, largely because it is the most current and utilizes video technology projecting what Karen is recording live-time on large screens. The utilization of such new technology in a quiet old bar in a production featuring the modern time tribulations of characters from old yet timeless Christmas stories represents the clash and conflict the characters face as they reflect on the past and deal with current problems. The segment also represents the need to be heard and the focus on self that the age of social media and YouTube has enabled. That perhaps is why the bartender is held hostage – because of Karen’s desire for a captive audience.

The actors also added in lines to older vignettes to keep it current, including a Donald Trump crack from Tiny Tim.

“Christmas on the Rocks” regulars also come back from year to year to see Harris and Wilkas. The production really tests their versatility as actors as they play multiple characters with gripes. The most vibrant scenes involve both actors’ knack for physical comedy. Wilkas excels as a flamboyant Hermey the elf, seemingly  channeling Jack from “Will & Grace” and Dana Carvey in his voice and expressions as he hops on the bar and caresses the bartender while speaking innuendos. Harris’ Russian accent, nut-cracking (peanuts were harmed in the making of this production), and splits lift the audience into laughter. Her close-ups as the fame-obsessed Karen on live camera drive the punchlines of her delivery.

Wilkas has the more depressed characters, while half of the ones Harris plays are more angry. However, the opening sketch with Ralphie, now a sexually frustrated and divorced “plushy” who needs fluffy things nearby to be intimate, is strong because of the writing and “A Christmas Story” references. His Charlie Brown scene at the end is the perfect way to close, presenting one of the only happy endings in the vignettes as he finally gets a moment of joy kicking the football and dancing with his childhood crush.

If you want to drink something simple and sweet go to your local bar. But if you want something with a flavor and edge to spark a good laugh, go to “Christmas on the Rocks.”

The show runs through Dec. 23, so you have plenty of time to see it this holiday season. Ticket information is available at www.theaterworkshartford.org/event/christmas-on-the-rocks-3/.