'A Lyrical Christmas Carol' must go on, Ken Gargaro says

| Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2012, 8:54 p.m.

Christmas without “A Lyrical Christmas Carol” is unthinkable, Ken Gargaro says.

“There is a demand not only from audiences, but from people who participate,” says Gargaro, founding director of Pittsburgh Musical Theater and dean of the Richard E. Rauh Conservatory.

In 1991, Gargaro and his wife, Jane, created their own stage adaptation of Charles Dickens' Christmas classic for a Pittsburgh Musical Theater production at the Stephen Foster Memorial.

“The (Pittsburgh) Playhouse had done it many times, but they had stopped doing it,” Gargaro recalls. “I thought it was a niche that needed to be served.”

Since then, the company has performed it every year except one in a succession of locations that has included Antonia Hall at Carlow College in Shadyside, the Colonial Theatre at Robert Morris University in Moon, the Byham Theater, Downtown, and two stays at the New Hazlett Theater on the North Side, where it has been done annually since 2007 and will show again starting Dec. 20.

The only year without “A Lyrical Christmas Carol” was 2002. The company was having financial difficulties and opted instead to mount “Ken Gargaro's Christmas Spectacular” in the auditorium of the James Centre in the West End that is also home to the Richard E. Rauh Conservatory.

“That was a lot of fun. It was modeled after the Radio City Music Hall Christmas shows — minus the live Nativity scene,” Gargaro says.

During the years, the show has grown and evolved.

“It started as (a cast of) 15 people, mostly professional actors, plus a small number of children,” Gargaro says.

When Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera debuted its “A Musical Christmas Carol” in 1992, Gargaro reinvented his production to make it more family-friendly and more supportive of Pittsburgh Musical Theater's educational mission.

“We added more music to involve more students. As time has gone on, there are fewer professionals, although we still have a guest artist in the lead role,” he says, noting that Anthony Marino will be making his fifth appearance as Scrooge with the company this year.

Over time, Gargaro has added more performers and characters so that almost 100 actors are involved in the show's two alternating casts.

Many of them are current or former Conservatory students who look forward to the annual production and would likely riot if Gargaro stopped doing it.

“The students said, ‘It can't be Christmas without (‘A Lyrical) Christmas Carol,' ” he says. “Kids like order. They like ritual. They like moving up in roles from Belle's children to Fred's Wife or Mrs. Fezziwig.”

Besides, Gargaro has no intention of stopping. The show generally plays to full houses.

More importantly, he still loves the show and enjoys adding his voice to the backstage chorus that augments the performers onstage.

“I know every single line from the show,” he says.

So do most of the performers who have participated year after year, he says. “It's such a joy putting together the show when everyone knows everything.”

Gargaro's script is somewhat darker than other versions, but it's also gotten funnier.

“It's still kid-friendly,” he says.”It's scary and funny. There's no redemption without fear.”

Gargaro believes the central theme of Scrooge's ability to change and be led to redemption keeps the show enduringly popular:

“It has longevity just because it's not religiously centered,” he says. “It's palatable to all religions because it's about redemption. … In every religious tradition, there is the idea of being able to change. It's a lesson in hope that transcends religion.”

Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808 or acarter@tribweb.com.

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