By RODNEY BRAZIL
This year, Lyric’s A Christmas Carol unpacks its Fezziwig for the ninth consecutive season.
Much has happened in the world over the last nine years. Uber and Airbnb launched. The Netflix series House of Cards came and went. England’s Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her Diamond Jubilee. And, while great events and new technologies can keep life exciting, sometimes it’s the familiar rituals and well-known institutions that bring us the most comfort.
For many in Oklahoma, one of those institutions is Lyric’s A Christmas Carol, now entering its 9th annual production at the Plaza Theatre. In addition to becoming a family tradition for theatre patrons in the Oklahoma City area, Charles Dickens’ original story has been re-told, re-mixed, and re-vamped countless times, a clear indication of the story’s resonance during the holiday season.
We wanted to take a look back at Lyric’s A Christmas Carol through the years to see what has changed and what remains meaningful to the artists involved. To help us on our journey, we spoke with five cast members who have been with the show since it was first staged in 2011.
For the first five years, Matthew Alvin Brown played Fred, Young Scrooge, and was the puppeteer for the Ghost of Christmas Future. For the last three years, his roles have changed a bit to include the Narrator, Topper, Caroline’s husband, and a mysterious-yet-elegant snow faerie. “I love my current track. It’s a non-stop ride!” Brown explained.
Initially in the role of Mrs. Cratchit, Susan Riley now plays a solicitor and a giggling sister. Her favorite part about the current track? The clothes. Riley gushed, “Our brilliant costumer, Jeffrey Meek, once joked that he was making up for my plain Mrs. Cratchit years by giving me four gorgeous costumes – each one even prettier than the one before.”
Brenda Williams has a track that changes a little bit every year but has included the Narrator, Mrs. Dilber, and Mrs. Fezziwig.
After starting in the ensemble of Lyric’s A Christmas Carol, Charlie Monnot now portrays Bob Cratchit.” I miss being in the ensemble numbers, but I love being a part of the Cratchit family.” Monnot explained that each year, the actors playing the Cratchits start to feel like a real family: “There is a real bond that we feel. I keep in touch with a lot of my ‘children’ from past productions.”
Mateja Govich was originally one of the solicitors and the harrowing undertaker. This year, he plays The Ghost of Christmas Present. Govich remarked, “I’m one lucky guy. I get to do a play, and I get to do it with people I love. How cool is that?”
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Performing eight shows each week throughout the holidays is a significant time commitment, which can mean missing out on holiday parties and other Christmas events. Being onstage requires physical stamina, of course, but in some ways, an extra level of dedication to the craft.
Matthew Alvin Brown: Christmas is just the best. For the last eight years, I’ve been able to live the Xmas Spirit with some of my best friends, who all happen to be incredible theatre artists. I don’t view it as a job or a gig. It’s a gift. Which sounds so stupid, but it’s true.
Brenda Williams: The community of actors brings me back–it is like family. It is family. Plus, Lyric treats everyone with such kindness and humor; you really can’t wait to get back.
Mateja Govich: Walking into that first rehearsal each year completes Christmas for me. It’s something I get to share with my daughters. I’m not a very cool dad, but at Christmastime I’m kind of a hero.
To maintain their physical stamina, some actors practice a precise workout regimen.
Susan Riley: Have you heard about our Christmas Carol fitness routine? I wear leg weights to rehearsals to start getting ready for that extra weight added to my body. Some of those costumes are deceptively heavy. I do about 22 flights of stairs each show going from the dressing room to onstage and upstairs for entrances, exits, and scene changes. You would never suspect it – but this show can be a workout.
With eight productions of Lyric’s A Christmas Carol, going on nine, there have been countless “theatre moments”– those once in a lifetime flashes of humanity that become backstage stories for years to come. For professional actors, these moments get passed along like urban legends, or more often, standup routines during 10-hour tech rehearsals.
Riley: The first year we did the show, one of the kids in the cast had their iPod go missing. All the adults felt terrible, so we pooled our money, and we gave it to their parents from the “Ghost of Christmas Awesome.” Throughout the years, the Ghost of Christmas Awesome comes back when someone needs it.
Govich: I think the most awkward moment, for me, was during this last season. About an hour before the show, I came down with a pretty nasty flu. I came to the theater to try to do the show, but my stomach didn’t cooperate in the least. I still owe Michael Baron a new trashcan for his office. That night, Tommy Cunningham went on as a Christmas present, and Michael put on a costume to complete the cast. From what I hear, they were all pretty damn incredible.
While the cast is mostly comprised of local, well-known acting talent, theatre actors are always looking over their shoulders to make sure the director doesn’t re-cast their part with a TV personality who’s looking for a comeback. We asked the cast who they would want to play their roles if Lyric decided to replace them with Hollywood stars.
Charlie Monnot: Paul Rudd…just because.
Govich: Without a doubt, John C Reilly. That guy can do anything. Plus, I think Michael would like hanging out with him.
Brown: Tilda Swinton. If she’s not available, try Gonzo.
Riley: I wish I could be portrayed by Meryl Streep or Kate Winslet, but I would probably be played by Meghan Trainor or Amy Schumer.
Williams: Judy Dench.
After working on a show for eight years, it’s common to uncover things about the story that you hadn’t noticed before. Even for those who feel they know the essence of the Dickens classic, new observations sometimes bubble to the surface.
Brown: As a kid, I wasn’t very interested in A Christmas Carol. I was strictly in the “Ralphie Parker and the Red Rider Camp”. And, reading a book wasn’t really up my alley back then. But, when we started rehearsals eight years ago, I immediately felt a connection. In the eight years since we’ve all experienced a lot. I’ve had those Bob Cratchit Years, a handful of Pre-Ghost Scrooge Years, and one or two Post-Ghost Scrooge Years. This story is so perfect. It really can serve as a reminder of how to live life all year round. I don’t think I caught all of that before. I was mostly bored by Dickens’ thirty-page description of a doorknob. Now, I get it.
Williams: It really is timeless. I love doing the show and love doing it at Lyric. Best time of the year.
Govich: Being good to each other should always be something you strive for. That’s at the heart of A Christmas Carol. It was true then, and it is true now. Luckily, we have this beautiful story to remind us of that truth.
Traditional Christmas carols are an essential part of Lyric’s production, bringing warmth to what at times can be a bleak morality tale. But what if Lyric decided to include other music as well? Inspired by the news that a church in Mexico erected a statue of the baby Jesus that looks remarkably like Phil Collins, I asked the cast, “If the final song in the show were switched to a Phil Collins classic, which would it be?”
Govich: True Colors, I think. Although, when the Ghost of Christmas Future shows up, it might be In the Air Tonight.
Riley: While I wouldn’t mind if we all jammed out to Sussudio for the curtain call, I think his Christmas Album might be the more fitting choice.
Brown: Another Day In Paradise.