The Christmas Carol Rag, an all-new musical adaptation of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA, sets the story of Scrooge in the United States in the early 20th century, when the rhythm of the holidays was syncopated.
Performances begin Nov. 12 at the lauded not-for-profit devoted the new plays and musicals and intimate revivals. Artistic director Eric Schaeffer directs. Norman Allen, Signature's resident playwright, penned the new New York-set piece, which features a Yiddish-speaking Ghost of Christmas Past and a gospel-singing Ghost of Christmas Present. Scrooge is reinvented as Mrs. Scrooge (played by Donna Migliaccio), a sweatshop owner who learns the meaning of Christmas in 1911 Manhattan.
Allen conceived and adapted the show, which features of a score of period songs by composers are diverse as Irving Berlin, Victor Herbert and George M. Cohan. Howard Breitbart handled musical arrangements. Performances continue to Dec. 22. Opening night is Nov. 18.
The creative team includes musical director Jay Crowder, choreographer Karma Camp, set designer Lou Stancari, lighting designer Chris Lee, sound designer David Maddox, property designer Avery Burns and costume designer Reggie Ray. Signature mainstay and co-founder Migliaccio won the Helen Hayes Award for playing Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd. Playwright Allen (Melville Slept Here) won the Hayes Award for Nijinski's Last Dance, and the Hayes' Charles MacArthur Award for In the Garden. Schaeffer was artistic director of the popular Sondheim Celebration at the Kennedy Center in summer 2002.
The cast also includes Steven Cupo as Fezziwig, Chrystyna Dail as Ghost of Christmas Past), Eleasha Gamble (Ghost of Christmas Present), Rachel Gardner (Mrs. Cratchit), Will Gartshore (Scrooge's nephew), Wendell Jones (Mr. Cratchit), Dana Krueger (Marley) and Alyson Hansell as Sylvia. Music and lyrics are by Berlin, Cohan, Victor Herbert & Henry Blossom, Leo Friedman & Beth Slater Whitson, Bert A. Williams & Alex Rogers, Harry O. Sutton & Jean Lenox, Joseph Howard, Charles Lawlor & James W. Blake.
Whose idea was the show?
"I wrote a show called The Christmas Foundling for a theatre out in California, and had a great time working on it," playwright Allen told Playbill On-Line. "It was great to write a piece that appealed to families and that had a message of both hope and of responsibility. It got me thinking — why not doing something like that right here at home? When it hit me that I could write a version of 'A Christmas Carol' specifically for Donna Migliaccio to star in, I really got excited — and so did Eric."
Why set the show in New York City in 1911?
"1911 in New York City was a vital and difficult time," Allen observed. "You had a huge influx of immigrants from around the world. You had a clash of many cultures. Yet you also had a sense of innocence that wouldn't be lost until 1914 and the beginning of World War I. More important, for the purposes of writing a musical — you had ragtime! This is simply great music, with a great, elegant, life-loving lift to it."
Addressing the songs used, Allen said, "In researching the music, I really just went for anything from the time period. (We actually go a little later than 1911 with a couple of selections.) It proved pretty difficult to find existing songs that naturally propel the story, so putting any restraints on the process would have just made it harder. I'm thrilled with what we found — and the way Howard Breitbart has arranged the music brings new life to some old chestnuts. There's a very melancholy rendition of 'After You've Gone' that will break your heart. Howard helped me in tracking down appropriate songs — and I had assistance from Donna and from Mark Horowitz at the Library of Congress as well."
Tickets are $20-$38. Signature is five miles outside of Washington, DC, at 3806 South Four Mile Run Drive in Arlington, VA. For information, call (703) 218-6500 or (800) 955-5566 or visit www.sig-online.org.
— By Kenneth Jones