The Last Noel: After 19 Season, Actors Theatre Is Putting A Christmas Carol on the Shelf

I long to take the month of December off from writing, so that I can focus on tree-trimming and card-making and other seasonal events. December deadlines are usually a nightmare, largely because printers keep such odd holiday schedules, and writing January copy the week before Christmas usually means I'm missing out on something Yuletide-y. I'm about to start missing Actors Theatre's A Christmas Carol, too, because the company is, after 19 years, retiring the show this month.

"When we first started doing the show, we were the only Christmas Carol around," Actors Theatre artistic director Matthew Wiener told me last week. "Now, there's a Dickens on every corner." As a result of all these other Scrooges, attendance for AT's version has been declining, as has its corporate underwriting, which has sunk from $100,000 to a measly $3,500 this year. The show, originally intended to stuff the company's coffers and fund the rest of the season, has outstayed its welcome, and will close for good on Christmas Eve.

The Christmas Carols left behind will never be able to touch Wiener and company's. I admit that I groaned when Wiener announced more than a decade ago his plans to rework Carol as a lighter, more family-friendly entertainment — not because AT's version was so magnificent then, but because "lighter" and "family-friendly" had me imagining all kinds of kooky Christmas silliness grafted onto Charles Dickens' dark tale of 19th-century industrial capitalism.

I needn't have worried. Wiener, who'd never much liked the Richard Hellesen and David de Berry adaptation he'd inherited when he became artistic director in 1995, teamed up with writer Michael Grady and composer Alan Ruch to create a show that kids can come see (and they have — literally by the busload) but that won't send parents or fans of literature into a diabetic coma.

I especially admire Grady's writerly nods to Dickens, like the addition of a scene in which the Ghost of Christmas Present reminds Scrooge that even miners toiling in despicable working conditions find joy in Christmas — a reference that's straight from the novella and rarely seen in any adaptation. Ruch and Wiener are in on keeping this adaptation literary, with lyrics that expand on passages from the Dickens story and the omission of long, tedious scenes, particularly those from the Christmas Future sequence. (We get it: Nobody liked Scrooge. No need to show us scavengers pawing through his belongings after his death.)

Wiener has never stopped tinkering with the show, although its major change came not from script and music revisions but from a casting switch. When Gerald Burgess — who'd played Scrooge as a hunched, angry old guy to great effect — was replaced in 1999 by tall, lanky Kim Bennett, the holiday hero everyone loved to hate was suddenly a rowdy, more robust Ebenezer, whose transformation at the end of the story provided some subtle hope: This is a Scrooge, Bennett seemed to be telling his audience, who's really going to do something in the world.

But not for much longer. Bennett and his Christmas comrades will exit Jeff Thompson's wonderful Old London sets for the last time next week. "We're going to get out of the holiday business for awhile," Wiener says. "A quarter-million people have seen our Christmas Carol. We've done more than 400 performances, and 163 actors have appeared in it. We're going to put the show into a couple of storage trailers for a while, and who knows? We may bring it back one day."

I hope so. In the meantime, I'm going to get caught up on my Christmas list.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela