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Catching The Brilliance Of Bill Raymond One Last Time In 'A Christmas Carol'

The way he holds his hat. The way he jiggles a key. The memories of all that — oh, you can't take that away from me.

There are plenty of reasons to revisit "A Christmas Carol — A Ghost Story of Christmas" at Hartford Stage. This year's go-round ends Dec. 30.

The show remains a showcase of thrilling technical design — sets by Tony Straiges, lights by Robert Wierzel, music and sound by John Gromada, choreography by Hope Clarke, costumes by Zack Brown and Alejo Vietti, flying effects by ZFX Inc.

There's always a fresh pack of cute little street urchins to coo over, and slight variations on the ghoulish dance routines due to the body types of the dancers. (Vanessa R. Butler, star of "Queens for a Year" at Hartford Stage earlier this season, plays several roles and serves as Dance Captain.)

The show remains largely as it was when it was first presented in 1998. I saw it back then, and was bowled over by how seriously the show took the "ghost story" aspect of Dickens' story. When the production was revamped in 2004, it got even creepier, as the ghosts began to fly. 

Michael Wilson still gets the "adapted and originally directed by" credit, but a new face, Rachel Alderman, is now credited as director, for the skill of maintaining the tone and quality of this long-running production. 

So, lots to take in. Yet when you know that this is Bill Raymond's last season in the role of Scrooge, all other considerations are diminished and you rush out just to catch his brilliance one last time.

Watching him Thursday night, it was as if he was he was still in his first flush of enthusiasm for the role. Yet Raymond has been Scrooge for all but two of the show's 19 seasons.

I've been a fan of his for much longer than that, starting with the shows he did with the preeminent experimental theater troupes Mabou Mines and Wooster Group. His performances in "Antigone in New York" at Yale Rep, as Bottom in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at Long Wharf Theatre and in "Moon for the Misbegotten" at both the Long Wharf and Hartford Stage were enthralling. TV viewers know him as the brooding gangster The Greek on "The Wire" and the mad scientist in "Stephen King's Golden Years."

Raymond makes every performance feel fresh. His Scrooge is hilarious with props — jousting with a fireplace poker, downing a goblet of glittering nectar, taking an interminable time to unlock his desk so he can dig out a single coin to hand to poor Bob Cratchit.

Raymond interacts deeply and personally with his cast mates. He takes his Scrooge to extremes, changing him overnight from a sourpuss whose mistreatment of others is downright sadistic to a lovable old coot making angels in the snow and waggling the neck of a plucked turkey as it were a hand puppet. Some of his best lines are non-verbal burps and murmurs. 

Think about how well we know this character, and think what extraordinary talent it must take to shake Scrooge free of cliches. Hartford Stage has always done a bang-up keeping "A Christmas Carol" from becoming stale and musty. It's still a prime showcase for the magic of live theater, and Bill Raymond has been the liveliest part of it.

Goodnight, sweet Scrooge. And flights of spirits sing thee to thy rest!

A CHRISTMAS CAROL—A GHOST STORY OF CHRISTMAS rattles its chains through Dec. 30 at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford. Tickets are $25-$90. 860-527-5151, hartfordstage.org.

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