The holiday season is stuffed chock-a-block full of platitudes, clichés and tired institutions.
More than 150 years after Charles Dickens gave the world “Bah! Humbug,” Marley’s face in a doorknob, Ignorance and Want and “God bless us, every one!,” his short novel, A Christmas Carol, doesn’t rest on its name-brand status.
“I never get tired of it,” said John Sweeney, now in his ninth year of directing Hale Centre Theatre’s stage production in West Valley City. “Even throughout the rest of the year, I’ll tie ideas from Dickens’ story into other productions I might be working on.”
Karen Azenberg is directing and choreographing Pioneer Theatre Company’s first-ever production of Dickens’ classic in her first season as the company’s artistic director, and she claims she knows the feeling.
“I’m a Jewish girl from New York City, but every bit a sucker as anyone else for this story and its message,” she said. “I love it, love it, love it.”
The truth is that, like the taste of chocolate, the story of the redemption and reformation of Scrooge never loses its vibrancy. Literary historians credit Dickens’ story for the holiday’s festive rebirth in Victorian England after centuries of Puritan repression. Scrooge’s treatment of his office clerk, Bob Cratchit, is credited by some as a harbinger to more humane relations between corporations and their employees.
Most important of all, grown men and women still weep at the sight of Tiny Tim’s empty stool by the fireplace. Only hearts of stone profess no reaction to A Christmas Carol. Even then, they’re probably fibbing.
Pick your carol • The good news is that this holiday season offers plenty of Utah productions to choose from, even for those fatigued by Scrooge’s annual journey with visitations from four ghosts to becoming a brand-new man.
Pioneer Theatre Company’s musical production, a show that played a sold-out decade-long run at New York City’s Madison Square Garden, features the Oscar-winning composing talent of Alan Menken, best-known for a string of Disney film scores, including “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin.”
Hale Centre Theatre’s production showcases lead actor and Dickens aficionado Richard Wilkins, in his 29th turn as Scrooge. Hale Center Theater Orem hosts its own offeringto Dickens’ legacy in Utah County.
Utah Shakespeare Festival founder Fred C. Adams will don Ebenezer’s top hat for Peter Sham and Brad Carroll’s “A Christmas Carol on the Air,” a version that translates the story into a radio play, at Southern Utah University in Cedar City.
“Anyone can turn it into shlock,” said Wilkins, who is a Utah lawyer when he’s not working in the Middle East. “But no one can destroy the permanence of Dickens’ achievement when he wrote the story of Scrooge.”
Scrooge, fresh or seasoned • The productions of PTC and Hale Centre Theatre in West Valley City are a study in approaching this classic work from the angles of innocence and experience.
At Hale, Wilkins has played the role almost 30 times in his nearly 60 years of life. In contrast, at Pioneer, 45-year-old Australian actor and singer Jamie Jackson is coming to the role for the first time. On top of that, he’s never once seen a film or stage version of the story.
“That’s partly deliberate,” Jackson said. “It’s a lot like Jesus or Hamlet. Some figures and characters are so famous you don’t really need to know them so well because you already know them in other contexts. Karen [Azenberg] said to us from the beginning that she wanted us to play these roles as real people, not icons or characters behind showroom glass. The best way to do that is to come to Scrooge as a sort of blank slate.”
The idea of “A Christmas Carol” as a musical may sound off-putting to purists. The musical version, with lyrics by Lynn Ahrens accompanying Menken’s score, is “sung through” without dialogue. Azenberg said the story lends itself to the genre, as does the season — Christmas is a holiday of song. Everyone’s already dancing at Fezziwig’s ball as the Ghost of Christmas Past reminds Scrooge of the young man he once was.
“There’s something very organic about music as part of the story,” Azenberg said.
Sweeney, by contrast, said he’s wary of tweaking the story too much, as Dickens’ tale works perfectly fine on its own. After years of directing and even acting in various productions, he’s more interested in discovering what the author himself thought of his story. To that end, Sweeney tracked down a little-known copy of Dickens’ staged reading version, first discovered in the early 1970s and available online in the collection of the New York Public Library.
Sweeney’s study of that version has led to several small changes in the way the play will be presented at Hale this year. In past productions, for example, Marley’s ghost lets his chains drag all about the stage, as if he were controlled by a higher power. This year they’re contained to Marley alone.
Haunts and enchantments • Wilkins said he never tires of playing “the squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner” Scrooge because it becomes new every year. “My hope is that with every year it’s a completely honest version of the character,” he said.
The Utah attorney is such a devotee of the story that he owns the first U.S. illustrated edition from 1887, purchased recently on eBay, as well as a rare 1843 original printed in England. Wilkins said he loves almost any version of the story. What he won’t abide is any version that omits the central, horrifying vision of the boy Ignorance and the girl Want revealed by the Ghost of Christmas Present.
“Skip that, and you miss the whole point of Dickens’ tale,” he said. “Dickens was a writer very much concerned with the abuses and political ideology of his time.”
As a newbie to the story, Jackson said he was most touched by Scrooge’s first journey with the Ghost of Christmas Past into his boyhood and early adulthood. “It’s hard to think of anything more powerful than going back in time to see yourself as a child to help understand the person you’ve become,” the actor said.
One of the glories of Dickens’ story, Jackson said, is that it reveals how the writer was able to transform people’s consciousness through impactful storytelling, drawing upon his years of experience writing political pamphlets on behalf of social reform.
“It is one of the supreme examples of how theater can be an act of consciousness-raising at one level, and completely entertaining on another,” he said.
Count the Scrooges
P It’s beginning to look a lot like Scrooge season in Utah, with multiple productions of adaptations of Charles Dickens’ holiday morality fable A Christmas Carol.
‘A Christmas Carol: The Musical’
When • Nov. 30-Dec. 15. Monday-Thursday, 7:30 p.m.; Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 2 and 8 p.m.
Where • Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. 1400 East, Salt Lake City
Info • $38-$59. Call 801-581-6961 or visit www.pioneertheatre.org for more information.
‘A Christmas Carol’
When • Dec. 8-Dec. 22. Monday-Friday, 5 and 8 p.m.; Saturday, 11 a.m., 2., 5 and 8 p.m.
Where • Hale Centre Theatre, 3333 Decker Lake Drive, West Valley City
Info • $18-$30. Call 801-984-9000 or visit www.halecentretheatre.org for more information.
‘A Christmas Carol’
When • Nov. 30-Dec. 22. Monday-Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 3 and 8 p.m.; Monday-Friday, Dec. 10-21, 5 p.m.; Saturday, Dec. 15 and 22, 11:30 p.m.; Dec. 20 and 21, 2 p.m.
Where • Hale Center Theater Orem, 225 W. 400 North, Orem
Info • $12-$20. Call 801-226-8600 or visit www.haletheater.org for more information.
‘A Christmas Carol: The Musical’
When • Nov. 30-Dec. 22
Where • Heritage Theatre, 2505 S. Highway 89, Perry.
Tickets • $9 adults, $8 children and seniors; at the box office or 435-723-8392
‘Scrooge, A Christmas Carol’
When • Nov. 26 and 30, Dec. 1 and 3, 7:30 p.m.
Where • Terrace Plaza Playhouse, 99 E. 4700 South, Ogden
Tickets • $7-$12; visit terraceplayhouse.com/bev/tickets
‘A Christmas Carol on the Air’
When • Dec. 6-8, 13-15 and 10 and 17, 7:30 p.m.
Where • Randall L. Jones Theatre, Southern Utah University, Cedar City
Info • $5-$10. Call 435-586-7872 or visit www.suu.edu/arts