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'A Christmas Carol' At Hartford Stage Breaks In An Adroit New Scrooge

Ebenezer Scrooge can now balance a turkey on his chin.

If you want to know the biggest difference between Michael Preston’s portrayal of the “Bah! Humbug!” icon at Hartford Stage when contrasted with that of his long-serving predecessor Bill Raymond, it’s definitely the turkey-chin thing.

Preston was a member of the progressive, intellectual comedy juggling troupe The Flying Karamazov Brothers for about a decade. In “A Christmas Carol” he flings poultry in the air to suggest overwhelming joy. At another part in the production, now marking its 20th anniversary in Hartford, Preston juggles a bottle, a moneybag and a fireplace poker because of the nervous energy Scrooge feels from being visited by several ghosts on Christmas Eve.

The juggling moments are brief and in character. Preston doesn’t turn “A Christmas Carol” into a circus trick. Even if he did, he’d be competing with flying skeletons, a spirit wrapped in chains emerging from fiery depths below the stage, a parade of children, a goblet full of glitter, and a large lit-up Christmas tree.

Hartford Stage’s “A Christmas Carol — A Ghost Story of Christmas” has always been grounded in visual spectacle. The production, now maintained by director Rachel Alderman, is basically the same as it was when Michael Wilson first staged it two decades ago. (Some design updates, including the elaborate flying effects, were made a few years ago.)

This “Christmas Carol” is a terrific introduction to live theater for small children, and a great reminder for adults of how much magic can be conjured through imaginative design and effusive, spirited acting. Preston is a worthy addition, but this “Christmas Carol” has always relied on high-production standards and an ensemble spirit more than any single performer.

The opening night performance of “A Christmas Carol” on Dec. 1 was haunted by falling objects, and not of the precisely juggled variety. Preston dropped some coins in an early scene. The child playing Tiny Tim leaned his crutch against a table only to have it slide to the ground — three times. These were reminders of what a full, detailed, lively production this is. There are dozens of props and costumes, including some of the best Victorian hats — top hats, bonnets, ghostly headgear — that you’ll see anywhere on a Connecticut stage this month. (Costume design is by Zack Brown and Alejo Vietti.)

Preston is far from the only new face in “A Christmas Carol” this season. A veteran of the show in other roles, Rebecka Jones has assumed the key female roles of dollmaker Bettye Pidgeon, the Spirit of Christmas Past and ragwoman Old Josie. Vanessa R. Butler (the star of Hartford Stage’s “Queens for a Year,” who joined the “Christmas Carol cast just last year) has moved up from the skeleton-dance ensemble to playing both Scrooge’s long-ago fiancee Belle and the unnamed wife of his nephew Fred.

New faces in the show include Kenneth De Abrew as Scrooge’s erstwhile mentor Fezziwig and one of two solicitors who hit the miser up for charity contributions; John-Andrew Morrison as the sprightly street merchant and inventor Mr. Marvel; and Shauna Miles as two wives (both Fezziwig’s and Bob Cratchit’s (here we must note how many of the female characters in this play are identified only by their spousal relationships to men, and how some of them aren’t even given names of their own). All three new recruits bring a brightness and freshness to their roles, particularly the twinkly-eyed Morrison, who gets a big audience reaction from a rather small time onstage.

Preston, who played Mr. Marvel for years in this show before assuming the starring role, actually underplays a lot. He can be dour and quiet. He can downplay his height and his energy and his relative youthfulness, the main elements that set him apart from Raymond’s more wizened, dithery and cantankerous rendition.

Preston is a tall, handsome bearded middle-aged man who takes some getting used to as Scrooge. He’s still finding himself in the first half of the show, where he’s mostly required to react to intrusions from others (the reliably fine Noble Shropshire as both housekeeper Mrs. Dilber and a ghoulish Jacob Marley, a pair of solicitors for a charity organization, Scrooge’s nephew Fred…). In the second half, Preston really comes into his own, interacting avidly with the visions of his past and future.

Raymond was unique — a top-flight, experimentally inclined actor who played the role of Scrooge so many times that the character was ingrained in every twitch of his eye, in every stomp of his foot, in every button of his waistcoat.

It would take an actor years to find bits of stage business as subtle and lived-in as what Raymond crafted in his 17 seasons of Scroogery. Preston has already found many inroads of his own into the character, most of which involve no turkey-juggling at all. “A Christmas Carol” is full of ghosts, but the powerful spiritual presence of Raymond does not have to be one of them. This grand staging of a classic story of death, debt and redemption has earned a life of its own.

A CHRISTMAS CAROL — A GHOST STORY OF CHRISTMAS, adapted from the Charles Dickens story and originally directed by Michael Wilson, currently directed by Rachel Alderman, runs through Dec. 30 at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford. Performances are Wednesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday at 2 and 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday at 2 p.m.; with added evening performances at 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 5, 17 and 26 and added matinees at 2 p.m. on Dec. 26 and 27. $25 to $90. 860-527-5151 and hartfordstage.org.

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