‘A Christmas Carol’ adaptation spotlights Syracuse culture, history

‘A Christmas Carol’ shows Syracuse culture, history

The world premiere of an Upstate version of the Charles Dickens' classic debuts at the Redhouse Arts Center.
Published: December 13, 2019
Temar Underwood (center) stars as Bob Cratchit in "A Syracuse Christmas Carol" at the Redhouse Arts Center.

Actor Temar Underwood looked to The Muppet Christmas Carol movie to prepare for his upcoming stage performance as Bob Cratchit. He was cast in A Syracuse Christmas Carol several months ago, but didn’t get the script until a week before rehearsals started.

For other musicals he’s been in, like RENT, Underwood could listen to the soundtrack and watch videos of other actors for inspiration. That wasn’t an option when he landed a lead role in a play that no one has ever seen before.

“I felt like I could just start from scratch in the rehearsal room and stay true to each moment,” Underwood said, one week into rehearsals at the Redhouse Arts Center.

A Syracuse Christmas Carol is a localized adaptation of Charles Dickens’ book, written by LJ Fecho with music and lyrics by Michael O’Flaherty. The musical transforms the regular Christmas Carol characters into central New York historical figures with local references sprinkled throughout.

Fred Grandy (left) stars as Ebenezer Scrooge alongside Haley Grogan, who plays Jane.

Ebenezer Scrooge, played by The Love Boat star Fred Grandy, meets infamous Syracusians including an indicted mayor, a Syracuse University three-sport team captain, the mastermind behind one of the most successful children’s stories, and the inventor of modern air conditioning systems. It’s set in the heart of Syracuse, where Scrooge dines on chicken riggies, folks are bundled in SU gear and Clinton Square glows with holiday spirit.

For Director Hunter Foster, it was important to choose the right historical figures and to pick the right moments to reference things about Syracuse. He worked closely with Fecho and O’Flaherty, revising and cutting the script as it went through several table reads and rehearsals.

“When you’re creating a new musical, you don’t know what it’s going to be until you put it on its feet,” Foster said.

He’s listened to the actors’ feedback when making adjustments, looping in the writers whenever there was a major change like cutting part of a scene. As an actor and a writer himself, Foster approaches his direction as a collaborative process among the entire team.

The ensemble of “A Syracuse Christmas Carol” performs songs by lyricist and composer Michael O’Flaherty.

The cast of A Syracuse Christmas Carol features local and Equity performers, including several youngsters from across central New York. Underwood said Foster helps guide the cast through the emotional truth of the piece while giving the actors freedom to make different choices with the material.

“(We’re) building it from just the blueprint of the score and what’s on the page in the book,” Underwood said. “So Hunter does a really good job of helping (us) find that.”

Foster approached the condensed, fast-paced rehearsal schedule with a “divide and conquer” attitude. He sometimes split up rehearsal so he could work with cast members in one room while choreographer Lisa Shriver worked on a scene in a different space at the same time.

This show isn’t Foster’s first Christmas Carol adaptation. He forged the original production of A Connecticut Christmas Carol with Fecho and O’Flaherty at Goodspeed Musicals in East Haddam, Connecticut, in 2017.

With Charles Dickens’ stories being in the public domain, copyright isn’t a concern when it comes to adapting A Christmas Carol. Fecho’s Connecticut plot dips into the late 19th century, while the Syracuse adaptation time travels between present day and the 1940s.

“Because of the historical figures in Syracuse, it was better to do it later,” Fecho said. Researching which well-known figures had the best quotes helped him decide who to write into each adaptation.

“A Syracuse Christmas Carol” features choreography by Lisa Shriver, who also choreographed “A Connecticut Christmas” at Goodspeed Musicals.

Fecho’s first experience adapting A Christmas Carol was in Reading, Pennsylvania, where he now serves as the artistic producer of the Genesius Theatre. He was inspired to create a Pennsylvania Dutch version of A Christmas Carol after seeing another local writer’s twist on A Night Before Christmas. The Reading show, Christmas Carol on the Avenue, is now an interactive audience experience entering its sixth season.

Dozens of theaters around the world produce versions of A Christmas Carol every year. The 2019 holiday season has seen one-man productions, live broadcast-style shows, adaptations inspired by famous singers and dance interpretations of the classic story.

There are more than 100 published works inspired by A Christmas Carol across creative disciplines including stage, film, television, radio, opera, graphic novels and parodies. Notable stage works include Fellow Passengers, A Klingon Christmas Carol, Mrs. Bob Cratchit’s Wild Christmas Binge and Scrooge the musical.

No matter where A Christmas Carol is performed or how it is interpreted, the original story carries themes that resonate with audiences around the world. It’s a story of redemption and family, Foster said, and serves as a reminder of what’s important in life.

“The good thing is we know that the classic story works,” he said. People know that Scrooge will always meet a Marley character and three ghosts, that Scrooge has an estranged nephew and that Scrooge had a business partner early in his career.

Each ghost in the adapted musical represents a historical figure from central New York.

It’s important to cast a Scrooge who can capture both the “beginning” and “end” Scrooge personalities, Foster said. A miscast Scrooge – one who can’t convey the character’s redemption at the end – means the play doesn’t work, he said.

For Fecho, writing A Syracuse Christmas Carol was easier than drafting the Connecticut script because they had already developed a strong story structure in A Connecticut Christmas Carol.

His adaptations of A Christmas Carol are more lighthearted than other productions, Fecho said. While there are still bone-chilling moments and Scrooge is still nasty to everyone around him, the humor is more tongue-in-cheek.

A Connecticut Christmas Carol opened its third seasonal run last week at Goodspeed. A Syracuse Christmas Carol opens at Redhouse Friday night and runs until Dec. 22.

Foster told the Redhouse production staff to save everything at the end of the run in hopes that this could become an annual tradition for Syracuse, too.

“The fun part of it is catering it to a Syracuse audience,” Foster said. He sees this first run as a learning experience and is open to making changes for future productions.

“Coming to see something that no one else has seen before is cool.”