By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“Wait.… Do you hear that?” whispers David van Belle, stopping himself mid-sentence, his fork mid-air. “Someone’s whistling Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” Sure enough, there it is, a faint sound. A ghostly wisp that floats through the Citadel lobby like a haunting.
Van Belle beams. “It’s everywhere!” he laughs. “It’s in our show!” If his ears are tuned to the Christmas frequency, it’s hardly surprising. The production, large of cast and lavish of scale, that premieres Thursday on the Citadel’s Maclab stage is the playwright’s new adaptation of A Christmas Carol, Dickens’ indelible 1843 tale of redemption against the odds on Christmas Eve. And it lifts the story of the flinty Ebenezer Scrooge Esq. out of the Victorian period and into 1949. In a department store. With a live jazz quartet.
For the first time in two decades, the Citadel has a new version of A Christmas Carol, to replace the Tom Wood adaptation that has been a bona fide Citadel hit (and civic holiday institution) for the last 19 Yule seasons. The new Christmas Carol, a $1 million affair with a cast of 36 including 13 kids and starring actor/ playwright/ director Ted Dykstra (originally from St. Albert) as Scrooge, has been fully two years in the creating.
Yes, for two years Edmonton playwright van Belle has taken a deep dive into everything Christmas, its traditions, its music, its stories, its ghosts, its particular magic. “And that includes two summers, in my shorts and sandals singing Christmas songs,” much to the amusement of his daughters (Wren and Zadie, six and three respectively).
In Edmonton, A Christmas Carol, “is more than just a play,” as Citadel artistic director Daryl Cloran (the director of the new version) puts it. “It’s more like a community event, a celebration of the spirit of generosity…. People come back every year. It’s part of their own holiday tradition.” And the same applies to actors. Cloran’s cast includes two former Scrooges (Glenn Nelson and Julien Arnold, the original Bob Cratchit), a former Fred (John Ullyatt, now the Ghost of Christmas Present), a score of former Cratchits who grew up (like Braydon Dowler-Coltman, back as Young Scrooge). Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks, a former Ghost of Christmas Past, is Scrooge’s lost love Belle in the new Christmas Carol. Lilla Solymos, a former Tiny Tim, is the Ghost of Christmas Past. Last year’s Tim, Sasha Rybalko, is back too, to say “God bless us, every one” under new circumstances.
Other big theatres in other Canadian cities do A Christmas Carol, sure, on rotation every few years between “holiday shows” like Mary Poppins at the Grand in London, Ont., or Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre and Vancouver’s Arts Club, or Peter Pan at the Neptune in Halifax. In Edmonton and Calgary, no way. The inviolable tradition of a full-bodied Christmas Carol every year, is “an Albertan phenomenon,” proposes Cloran, a relative newcomer to the province as he points out.
Theatre Calgary has been doing A Christmas Carol, in different versions, for 35 years. In Edmonton, where generations of actors have played in Wood’s adaptation in the course of two decades, it’s not like that. A new version is a landmark event. “So how do we celebrate the 20th anniversary of presenting A Christmas Carol here at the Citadel?” says Cloran. “Our Christmas gift to Edmonton is a new production, one that’s loyal to the story, but allows us to have brand new costumes, brand new set — and a new take.”
“What’s at the heart of the story that resonates? What is the experience an audience comes to A Christmas Carol wanting?”
“I pitched Daryl a spectrum of five different possible versions,” says van Belle of brainstorming at the Banff Playwrights Colony. “At one end, the 1840s: top hats and holly and hooped skirts, a straight-up traditional version. At the other end, a version with 12 people in an Edmonton transit shelter on the coldest night of the year who decide for some reason to do A Christmas Carol…. I’m really glad we didn’t go with that one,” he laughs.
As Cloran says, “there are two periods that are Christmas for us.” Van Belle echoes the thought. “Dickens is so associated with Christmas, Victorian Christmas ornaments, gingerbread houses, people in bonnets singing. What other period also has that resonance?” He and Cloran lighted on the late ‘40s early ‘50s.
“There’s a whole wealth of Christmas movies we love — It’s A Wonderful Life, Miracle On 34th Street, Holiday Inn — from that time.” And there’s the music: “the body of Christmas music written during the Second World War or shortly afterward, with their sense of longing, of wanting to be home, yearning for peace,” as van Belle says. “If you listen to Christmas radio right now, most of the songs are from that period….”
“The music was part of the pitch!” says van Belle. There are 12 songs in the show. And, unlike traditional Christmas carols in the public domain, the Citadel had to acquire rights. “Some of the rights holders are mega-corporations, like Sony. Some are not,” says the playwright. In the course of his researches, he found an old party song he was convinced hadn’t been heard in decades. The rights for Pinky Tomlin’s I Told Santa Claus To Bring Me You were held by the family of the composer. “They were super-excited we wanted to use it!”
After a two-year Christmas immersion (which started during a January, after the seasonal sentiment had worn off), van Belle can talk about the two versions of Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, one more melancholy than the other. “There’s the Judy Garland version from Meet Me In St. Louis (“until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow”) , that other more festive (‘hang a shining star upon the highest bough’). “We use both,” he says.
“It’s not a musical,” van Belle says. But in the course of “letting the lyrics and the script talk to each other,” he’s discovered that “in a way the music does move the action forward,” as it does in musicals. “Some of the more emotional moments are conveyed through song,” says Cloran, who, in a happy collaboration, directed the premiere of van Belle’s Liberation Days at Theatre Calgary.
“We wanted to make sure we didn’t do something gimmicky. Or take the piss,” says van Belle. “A Christmas Carol lives in it heart. We don’t need someone to make fun of it for us. There are lots of beautiful things in there.”
The visual possibilities were nothing if not inspiring for designer Cory Sincennes. Since the ghostly interventions for the ossified soul of Scrooge propel him into the past, there’s a half-century — including Edwardian early-Scrooge, the 1920s, the Depression, the ‘40s — to work with. “So much fun to costume!” says van Belle. The Fezziwigs’ party is in the ‘20s, for example, with an early Flapper look.
A Christmas Carol is a ghost story, it need hardly be said. “It’s one of the draws,” as van Belle says. “A ghost story is inherently theatrical…. And the Victorians believed that Christmas Eve was when the spirit world came closest to the human world. Which is why telling ghost stories used to be a big part of the Christmas experience.” The thought echoes in the Christmas song It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year: “There’ll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories, of Christmases long long ago.”
It’s tricky to find the right kid-friendly balance between wonder-inspiring and scary, he and Cloran have found. “The Christmas and Halloween hybrid,” laughs van Belle, thinking of his daughters. “We don’t see it much, except in A Christmas Carol and The Nightmare Before Christmas. I’d write something scary, and then add a stage direction ‘in a manner that will not scare five-year-olds’.” He took his older daughter last year to the see the Citadel production. “We played Scrooge and Marley for two or three months after that….”
As fellow playwright Colleen Murphy told van Belle, “you can change anything you want just so long as you tell the story of Scrooge and his redemption.” The first act is about “all the love he was given, and how he closes the door on it, time and time again,” he says. “In Act II, he discovers the joy has been under his nose the whole time. The people around him are full of joy and good will…. Open your heart. Even if you’re busy, or stressed. Or angry about politics.”
There’s something mysterious and deep about our connection to the story, muses van Belle. “Because it’s so damn cold and dark?” he wonders. Last year, as he points out, out of 27 performances of Wood’s A Christmas Carol, only 300 tickets were unsold. A new version of something that’s so embedded in the local affections is “a huge responsibility. Not something I take lightly at all….”
“I hope people fall in love with this production too.”
A Christmas Carol
Written by: David van Belle from the Charles Dickens novella
Directed by: Daryl Cloran
Starring: Ted Dykstra, Julien Arnold, Vance Avery, Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks, Lilla Solymos, Sasha Rybalko — 36 actors altogether
Running: through Dec. 23
Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com