Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol in 1843, and onstage versions of it are today a holiday staple at theaters across the English-speaking world, cash cows that sustain operating budgets for the theater season.
Dickens’ tale resonates not simply because Scrooge’s conversion has become a familiar holiday story. It’s also because Dickens wrote with passion about the plight of everyday people — from merchants like Scrooge and Marley and the hapless but loving Fezziwig to petty wage slaves like Bob Cratchitt — and showed how, despite their narrow world, there could be reasons for joy and celebration.
Today the world is again in “hard times,” a phrase Dickens used to title one of his novels. In fact, the current mess seems to have been brought about by the same “chains” of greed that Marley’s ghost clanks and moans about when he alerts his one-time business partner that he’ll be visited by three apparitions. The social conscience that Dickens applied in the 19th century is all the more timely in the 21st, and that’s why Cincinnati Playhouse’s staging of A Christmas Carol is especially worth seeing in 2008.
This is the 18th year the Playhouse has presented Howard Dallin’s adaptation, and I’ve watched it annually, seeing actors come and go and Tiny Tims grow up (there’s a “where are they now?” feature in this year’s program), witnessing the growth of traditions — onstage and off — as the production has become a local fixture. Attending opening night is how I kick off my own holiday season, digging out a tie bearing a Norman Rockwell illustration of Bob Cratchitt and Tim. And I’m never disappointed.
Many actors from Cincinnati and nearby have played their respective roles for multiple years. After many years as Bob Cratchitt, Bruce Cromer became Scrooge in 2005; now in his fourth year, he completely owns the role — from the curmudgeonly opening when he chases carolers away to Christmas morning when, overcome by a riot of conflicting emotions, he finally concludes that he wants “to talk to people” and learns from a young boy how to say, simply, “Merry Christmas!”
Other local performers include Greg Procaccino, a regular since 1991. He is the horrifying Marley in Act One and returns as the revolting Old Joe, a rapacious pawnbroker, in Act Two. (Every year his characters get more texture and twitches.) Dale Hodges, also a cast member in 1991, shows her versatility: She is the Ghost of Christmas Past, a sort of low-key fairy; a dotty party guest at the home of Scrooge’s nephew who doesn’t like chickens; and finally Scrooge’s longtime servant Mrs. Peake who barely recognizes her merry and unexpectedly generous master on Christmas morning. Amy Warner (a regular since 2002, although she was in the 1992 production) plays the lusty Mrs. Fezziwig, and Regina Pugh (who has performed steadily since 1992) is the devoted Mrs. Cratchitt. Part of the reason these actors can make a living in Greater Cincinnati is because the Playhouse uses them annually for these roles.
Several professionals from elsewhere return regularly and now are part of the family: Andy Prosky replaced Cromer as Bob Cratchitt in 2005, and he gives the role an occasional zany spin, applying quick shots of Monty Python physicality to the downtrodden accounting clerk. Keith Jochim (who played Richard Nixon in Nixon’s Nixon at the Playhouse in 1997) is the benevolent if befuddled Fezziwig and the expansive Ghost of Christmas Present.
What I especially enjoy on opening night is seeing in the audience young teens who once played the Cratchit children or populated the production’s crowded street scenes and the party at Fezziwigg’s. They come back annually with their families to share in this tradition. They mingle with other families experiencing the magic for the first time. It’s truly a gift to Cincinnati.
If you haven’t seen it, give yourself a present and do so.
A CHRISTMAS CAROL continues in the Cincinnati Playhouse's Marx Theatre through Dec. 30. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.