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