This article originally appeared in Westword.
In normal times, the story of Scrooge — his stinginess and bad temper, his visitation by three ghosts and ultimate conversion into a kindly, charitable soul — may seem a bit of a Christmas cliché. Who doesn’t know the story? And who hasn’t seen one of its many pop-culture manifestations, from television specials to movies to cartoon figures like Disney’s Scrooge McDuck? But these aren’t normal times, and the Denver Center Theatre Company’s version of A Christmas Carol has always been rich, sumptuous and filled with music. It does full justice to Charles Dickens’s words, features adorable children and charming adults, has kids in the audience yelling with mingled fear and delight at the appearance of the ghosts (artistic director Chris Coleman says he has seen adults visibly flinch at the sudden, chain-rattling appearance of Jacob Marley), and attracts throngs of little boys in suits and little girls in sparkly dresses.
The upcoming production, which opens November 19 and runs through December 26 in the newly renovated Wolf Theatre, is the first company show to open since the pandemic closed local theaters in March a year ago.
“It’s really exciting that we’re going to have an audience indoors,” says Coleman. “And to tell a story that’s beloved by people of all ages.
“It’s a crazy time right now to figure out how you rehearse safely, how you work with kiddos under twelve safely, what the protocols are backstage,” he adds. “It calls for more work and vigilance than any of us are accustomed to. There are a lot of new cast members, a couple of scenes have been reworked, who’s singing what has shifted somewhat, there are new costumes. I think it’s going well. It’s intense to be in a room with that size group right now, but spirits are good.”
In addition to safeguarding the cast by demanding vaccinations and regular tests for children under twelve, the center is enforcing vaccination and mask protocols for audience members.
A Christmas Carol is directed by Melissa Rain Anderson, and Sam Gregory returns to the role of Scrooge, which he first undertook in 2016. Gregory is a talented and versatile actor as convincing in comedy as he was as a viciously suppressed racist in Curious Theatre Company’s White Guy on the Bus some years back.
Though he participated in readings over the last year a couple of them with friends on Zoom, Gregory says his last time in an actual theater before beginning Christmas Carol rehearsals was in March 2020, while working on a preview for a play called Admissions at Curious. Production was closed down the day after that preview.
Getting back into rehearsal “felt like when you’ve been apart for a long time and then you’re together again and picking up the conversation where you left off,” Gregory says. “Everyone in the cast was meeting an old friend again. It was a very emotional first couple of days. There were some tears shed, some long hugs.”
He had enjoyed his year-long retirement to some extent, he adds. But on his return to theater, “I realized how big a loss it had been to have my work taken away from me.”
A Christmas Carol seems to Gregory particularly relevant: “It’s the story of a man who is completely isolated and cut off from society who finds his way back, and that is a very emotional story now, one that we all have been through. We were all living in Waiting for Godot. Every day, exactly the same thing would happen. We’d be with exactly the same person and waiting for something from Amazon that never showed up.”
Scrooge’s journey, Gregory feels, begins with loss. “We know his sister, who was the only one who loved him, has died. He lost the love of his life because he embraced money over her. Jacob Marley, his business partner and friend, died recently. But at the end he’s reunited with his nephew and has found a way to fit into his family again and be part of the community. That’s always a good story, but now it has resonance it didn’t have two years ago. There’s a line in the show, ‘Where did it all go?’ And I say that line and think, ‘Yes. Where did it all go?’ It all went away so fast. We were all living normally. and within two weeks it was gone.”
But despite all the character’s sorrow, Gregory says, “I like this guy Scrooge. He says really funny things. He’s got a droll humor.” Overall, the cast has found more humor in the script than before, along with “a little spookiness, so we get through some dark to get to the light.”
The script for this Christmas Carol hews closely to the Dickens original, though Gregory and director Anderson are changing the character of Scrooge a little. He’s described in the book as “cold as ice, shut down and closed off,” observes Gregory. “That reads very well, but if you’re playing that first third of the show, it’s not very active or theatrical.
“His shutdown is intentional,” he continues. “Because of his losses, he’s decided that contact with people is painful. That’s our take on the character. In the novella, the candle is out and gets re-lit. In this production, his candle is burning, but he keeps it hidden and he doesn’t even know it’s burning. In the course of events, it gets brighter.”
The Denver Center’s interpretation doesn’t ignore the story’s politics and Dickens’s profound concern for the plight of the poor in Victorian England. “There was a stark difference between the haves and the have-nots in Dickensian times, and there is now,” says Gregory. “Dickens’s strong call for social justice is fully in my mind.”
“I think Christmas Carol is hard to do now,” says Coleman. “How traditional should we be? How inventive? I think this production gives you all the fright, humor and hurt you want.
“Just the gift of being able to gather and share this story feels more special now than in any other year,” he concludes.
A Christmas Carol runs Friday, November 19, through December 26 at the Wolf Theater in the Denver Performing Arts Complex. Shows are every day of the week except Mondays at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday matinees are at 2 p.m. For tickets, call 303-893-4100 or visit denvercenter.org.