BY JOHN FLEMING
Times Performing Arts Critic
In surveys of the most performed plays in American theater, A Christmas Carol always comes out on top.
"Telling that story is the most popular theatrical event in the United States, outside of the complete works of Shakespeare," says Eric Davis, artistic director of FreeFall Theatre in St. Petersburg.
In many communities, stage adaptations of the Dickens novel, either as a play or a musical, are a holiday staple, but they have tended to come and go in the Tampa Bay area. Now FreeFall is trying to start a tradition, staging a musical of the Dickens classic as the first holiday show in its new home in a former Christian Science church.
"It's the most lavish production we've done so far," Davis says, citing the period costumes, Victorian setting and special effects. "There's the famous moment where Scrooge encounters Marley's face on the door knocker, and I'm excited about the effect we're creating for that."
Davis had planned to produce a well-known musical treatment of A Christmas Carol by Alan Menken (music), Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics) and Mike Ockrent (book) that played for 10 years during the holidays at Madison Square Garden, but several months ago, he changed his mind. Now the company is doing a new musical by Keith Ferguson (book and lyrics) and Bruce Greer (music).
"Don't get me wrong, the Menken musical is a lovely version, but a lot of the Dickens prose is missing," he said. "As a theater that pays close heed to language, we wanted to maintain a lot more of the original story. The Ferguson-Greer adaptation is very faithful to the novel, including lots of narration in that singular Dickens voice that has such a sardonic sense of humor."
Ferguson and Greer's A Christmas Carol premiered last year at First Baptist Church in Carrollton, Texas, a suburb of Dallas. Ferguson is associate pastor of music and worship at the megachurch, which has as many as 2,000 people attending a service. But the pair — Greer is a Baptist church music minister in Oklahoma City — didn't write the musical strictly for the church market.
"We tried to thread the needle and make it appeal to both churches and theater companies," Ferguson says. "We do view it through a spiritual lens, but we were very careful not to make it sound churchy or preachy. We think our adaptation can fit within the context of a church or a secular commercial theater."
Greer's score is a mix of original songs and seasonal favorites like God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, Coventry Carol and I Saw Three Ships. They'll be performed at FreeFall to orchestra music on recorded tracks by a cast of 10 professional adult actors, plus young actors for eight child characters. Steve Patterson (Quixote in the company's production of Man of La Mancha last season) plays Scrooge.
Why is Dickens' story, first published in 1843, so durable?
"I think the thing about A Christmas Carol that's so fascinating is that it's a ghost story," says Ferguson. "But you've also got family issues, social issues and spiritual issues as well, with the Christmas holiday and Scrooge's attempt to remake himself."
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.