40+ years of “A Christmas Carol”

On Sunday, T and I went to see a production of A Christmas Carol at Cider Mill Stage. This particular staging of the Charles Dickens classic was first conceived and produced in 1979 by Binghamton University professor John Bielenberg and the original cast as a play within a play, with the actors performing the story in the bedroom of a child who is recovering from an illness and must avoid crowds, something that seems even more ominous in our current pandemic days. Fortunately for the actors, there is an adjacent (and oddly well-stocked) attic that affords costumes and props for the impromptu performance, although one of the charms of the show has always been seeing a few caps and scarves and capes re-purposed to accommodate a range of characters and uses. A scarf is not just a piece of clothing but can also be a leash for a dog or the reins for a shaggy pony.

When T and I arrived, we were surprised and pleased to find a poster listing all the known cast and crew members of A Christmas Carol over the decades. This included T and her sister E who played the sick child, which also involves portraying Tiny Tim, for nineteen performances each in the late 1990s-early 2000s. E was in the cast the last year that John Bielenberg played Scrooge before his retirement. T’s Scrooge was Bill Gorman, who was also a member of the original 1979 cast. Their productions were directed by Tom Kremer and Carol Hanscom, also original cast members.

Because of our familiarity and past experience, the Cider Mill production of A Christmas Carol has continued to be close to our hearts but the performance Sunday was even more emotional. Tom Kremer, who is now portraying Scrooge, came out before the play began to dedicate the performance to Claus Evans, original and long-time cast member who had recently passed away. Claus had played the Ghost of Christmas Present, Mr. Fezziwig, and other ensemble characters for most of the first forty years. He had a commanding stage presence and a powerful voice, especially when singing. This version of A Christmas Carol, while not a musical in the traditional sense, does involve a fair amount of incidental music, both traditional pieces and new music composed by original cast member Susan J. Peters and current cast member Ken Martinak. I admit that I teared up during the Fezziwig party scene, remembering the brio with which Claus sang “Wassail! Wassail! All Over the Town”.

While not able to match Claus’s singing prowess, Brad Morgan did a fine job with Fezziwig and Ghost of Christmas Present. His first year in the cast was the year that E was in the production when he was quite a young man. I remember him struggling in rehearsal to accurately deliver the Dickensian language of the ghost of Jacob Marley. I was particularly impressed with his portrayal now, which has a chilling depth and pathos. Brad also deserves a lot of credit for keeping the production alive during some years of upheaval at the Cider Mill after the original Cider Mill Playhouse closed. Thankfully, the play is now back in the space for which it was designed under the name Cider Mill Stage. And yes, there is a cider mill in the front of the building, active in the late summer through early fall. The theater area was originally a storage space for apples.

I hope that A Christmas Carol will continue to grace the Cider Mill and the Binghamton area for decades to come, spreading its message of the importance for caring for one another, regardless of the season of the year.

“And, as Tiny Tim observed, ‘God bless us, every one!'”

Author: Joanne Corey

Please come visit my eclectic blog, Top of JC's Mind. You can never be sure what you'll find!

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