Review: ''A Christmas Carol A Ghost Story of Christmas' at Hartford Stage

Nancy Sasso Janis

Connecticut Critic / Connecticut Critics Circle

“‘A Christmas Carol’ has an everlasting freshness that fills the heart with hope and caring. It keeps me fresh, it always will. Even when I no longer perform it, it will be with me and I am thankful for that.” - Bill Raymond

Hartford, CT - ‘A Christmas Carol - A Ghost Story of Christmas’ is a holiday tradition at Hartford Stage that is currently in its nineteenth year. The play is now under the direction of Artistic Associate Rachel Alderman. The annual production combines professional actors with the graduating class of acting students from the Hartt School of Music who have earned the opportunity to perform opposite their faculty. Each year also brings a new group of children from both near and quite far away to the company. 

Those ghosts are pretty scary, but are one of the best parts of this cleverly adapted version of the Charles Dickens’ classic novella by former Hartford Stage artistic director Michael Wilson. Darko Tresnjak, the current artistic director of Hartford Stage, writes that Mr. Wilson has created much more than a holiday entertainment; he has created a perennial holiday tradition for patrons young and old in the Greater Hartford community. Almost every seat was filled at the Sunday matinee that I attended and many families sat together in the beautiful theatre. 

For seventeen of this show’s nineteen years, Bill Raymond has starred as Ebenezer Scrooge and 2016 will be his final year playing the iconic role.  His Scrooge was a jolly old soul even before his transformation of heart, adding a little comedy and some contemporary references to the first act. 

Mr. Wilson writes that the actor worked with him 19 years ago to create this version of the iconic story and for 17 of the last 19 years, he has “put his inimitable, distinctive mark on one of the greatest characters of English literature. He joins actors such as Lionel Barrymore, Alistair Sims, Albert Finney and George C. Scott in an elite club of extraordinary actors who have left their indelible mark on Dickens' classic story of redemption and grace.”

“‘A Christmas Carol’ has been incredible to me,” said Mr. Raymond. “I have mixed emotions because I have been doing this nearly 20 years, and I truly love it...I can’t imagine being without the incredible surroundings that Hartford Stage affords me.” 

Robert Hannon Davis, a professor at Hartt School and in his thirteenth season, plays a beautiful Bob Cratchit, Scrooge’s long-suffering clerk. Alan Rust, the director of Hartt’s Theater Division, played Bert (a fruit and cider vendor who owes money to Scrooge) and a joyful Spirit of Christmas Present in his eighteenth season. 

In another example of inspired casting, Hartt faculty member Johanna Morrison played Bettye Pidgeon, a doll vendor also in debt to the miser, as well as the ghost of Christmas Past. Performing in her eighteenth season with this production, she also returned to the stage as Old Josie in the second act.  Noble Shropshire, in his thirteenth season, played the housekeeper Mrs. Dilber and quick-changed to play the chain-laden ghost of Jacob Marley, who still has a pretty impressive entrance. 

Michael Preston, a professor at Trinity College, played Mr. Marvel, a watchworks vendor, with glee, but the Spirit of Christmas Future was credited to Himself. Margaret Anne Murphy was charming as Martha Cratchit and Vanessa R. Butler (‘Queens for a Year’ ) returned to this stage to lay Fred’s sister-in-law and Fezziwig’s daughter Wendy; she was also the dance captain. 

Rebecka Jones shines in her fifteenth season as both Mrs. Fezziwig and Mrs. Cratchit. Charlie Tirrell (fifth year) covers Fezziwig, First Solicitor and the undertaker. Flor De Liz Pere was luminous as Fred’s wife and Scrooge’s long ago fiancee Belle in her Hartford Stage debut. Terrell Donnell Sledge returned to play Scrooge’s nephew Fred and Scrooge at 30 years of age, not in the same scene of course. Buzz Roddy played the Second Solicitor.

The students in the Hartt School Ensemble all made their Hartford stage debut playing ghosts, party guests, and other small roles. Those ghostly apparitions were dressed all in white with rattling chains and glow in the dark remnants of their method of death, and of course one ghost flew across the stage in a storm. 

The children of the cast, in grades pre-k to seventh grade, share the various roles and included Ella Rain Bernaduci in the role of Scrooge’s sister Fan. Kudos to the up and coming actors in both ensembles for keeping up with the pros.

This year I caught the symbolism of the doll that Scrooge carried through Christmases in the past, the sparkly wine bottle that he brought to Christmases present and the clock projections that marked the Christmases of the future. Snow graced the past and sparkly confetti was everywhere in the present.

The scenic design by Tony Straiges set the mood, and costumes by Alejo Vietti (original costumes design was by Zack Brown) were perfect for the period. The atmospheric and quite spectacular lighting that was designed by Robert Wierzel kept up the tone. Incidental choreography was by Hope Clarke and John Gromada did the original music and sound design. Flying effects by ZFX, Inc. 

After a second viewing of this annual production, I recommend it for ages 8 and up, especially because of the number of young children in the cast. If you have never seen it, I encourage a trip to Hartford this year to catch what will be one of the last of 647 performances by Mr. Raymond in the role of Scrooge.  The show runs one hour and 45 minutes including one intermission. The production runs at Hartford Stage through Dec. 30 and Mr. Raymond will perform in all public performances except for the 2:00 and 7:30pm shows on Monday, Dec. 26, when Buzz Roddy will cover the role of Scrooge. Postcards are available in the lobby on which to write a message of thanks to Mr. Raymond during his final season. 

Three post-show talkbacks have been added for ‘A Christmas Carol.’ These discussions, led by the artistic team, will feature adult cast members from the production. The dates are Wednesday, Dec. 7 at 7:30pm, Saturday, Dec. 10 at 2:00pm and Wednesday, Dec. 14 at 7:30pm.

Bill Raymond (foreground), Curtis Billings and Gillian Williams Photos by T. Charles Erickson