'A Musical Christmas Carol' is chock-full of timeless truths
Hope is often built on timeless truths. Things we can count on.
The story that the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera’s “A Musical Christmas Carol” tells each year is chock-full of those truths, says veteran cast member Tim Hartman of Ben Avon.
He and the mostly seasoned cast are eager to return to tell it again in performances Dec. 7-23 in the intimate Byham Theater downtown.
Television and Broadway veteran Richard Thomas, probably best known for his Emmy-winning work as John-Boy on TV’s “The Waltons” — and most recently as agent Frank Gaad on the Peabody Award recipient, “The Americans” — makes his debut as the iconic Ebenezer Scrooge.
The Charles Dickens’ classic “IS” Christmas, Hartman says with emphasis. “It fleshes out what is really important about the season. You get a nice view of why this day is so important.”
This is Hartman’s 26th year as part of “A Christmas Carol” — 23 in Pittsburgh and three at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. He portrays Mr. Fezziwig, The Ghost of Christmas Present, the narrator, the social worker and a businessman.
“I have been doing this track (of roles) for 24 years. I love playing ‘Present,’ ‘Fezziwig’ and the ‘Social worker,’ because they embody the true meaning of Christmas: joy, charity and redemption.”
He views Fezziwig as “The Anti-Scrooge.”
“He loves Christmas as much as Scrooge hates it, and I get the honor of playing that delight in Christmas,” he explains.
The fact that there is a new Scrooge this year and that he will be portrayed by Thomas, one of America’s greatest actors, makes this year’s production an “exciting and different show,” says David Howard Bell, who was the original director of the CLO production 27 years ago and the adapter of the original story.
Bell heads the Music Theatre program at Northwestern University and is artistic director of The American Music Theatre Project. He directed the CLO shows the last two years, but had a schedule conflict this year.
“Thomas will inspire everyone to listen more closely to each other as he guides Scrooge and the audience through his transformation,” says Bell. “I have always been a giant fan of Richard Thomas. I had seen him do ‘Richard II’ in D.C. and have wanted to work with him ever since. He is an extraordinary actor.”
Bell says he is very proud of his adaptation this year. It contains the elements of “light and dark” that make the original story so compelling, he explains.
“We sometimes forget that this story of transformation and redemption that ultimately ends in the line ‘Mankind is our business, and don’t forget it!’ was a revolutionary idea in Victorian England.
Industrialization, empire-building, capitalism and power in the hands of the wealthy few led to the marginalization of much of the society, he reminds.
Heart of the story
The charity and brotherhood at the heart of the story, which cautions against Scrooge’s greed at the cost of his own soul, is timeless, he adds.
“The discovery that it is not too late to change, and that hope for better times and salvation is an essential gift of Christmas, is also timeless.”
Bell says we never tire of this story because the urgent need for its important message of charity has never left us.
Lisa Ann Goldsmith of Hazelwood, who is portraying Mrs. Cratchit for the eighth year, agrees.
“This is a timeless story of redemption and kindness, important to hear at any time, but especially in this current political climate,” she says.
Her goal is to show the strength and compassion of Mrs. Cratchit.
“I’m super-excited to work with Richard Thomas. He is a wonderful actor and, I hear, a lovely human being,” she says.
The actors are all amazing, Bell says.
“They have the task to recreate a show that has been playing for 27 years and to create it anew each year, at the same time,” he says.
Freeport native Andrew Ostrowski, longtime lighting designer, says he is up to the challenge. He has designed almost 300 shows in his career, working for every professional company in Pittsburgh.
His award-winning work has appeared nationally and internationally. The Pittsburgh resident has been an adjunct instructor for Point Park University for the last 20 years
“We always try to look at the story ‘fresh’ and see if we can dig deeper to create another level,” he explains. “I love adding to the story by way of any visual that helps articulate it. That might be by color or by texture or by new technology.
“It is always nice and warm to come back to this heartwarming story of how a single life can and does mean so much to another’s,” he says. “I try to bring any wisdom I have accumulated into my art, to enrich the experience for the audience.”
The message is powerful, he believes.
“I feel that in the current world we live in, that we all should recognize that kindness and love go a long way to help each other. Charity and kindness never go out of style and we all need that each and every day,” he says.
Musical director McCrae Hardy of Raleigh, N.C., in his 23rd year with the production, promises the music will be “glorious and transcendent.”
“I try to keep everything fresh and listen intensely every night to make everything time perfectly and underscore all the emotional highs and lows of the show,” Hardy says. ” I enjoy playing the show immensely and working with our tiny orchestra of three amazing players.”
“A Musical Christmas Carol” offers a familiarity the audience can count on every year, he says: “You come knowing that Scrooge will be redeemed, that Tiny Tim will live, that Christmas will come again.”
Rex Rutkoski is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.