Nothing heralds the coming of the Christmas season in the Triangle like the opening of Theatre in the Park executive and artistic director Ira David Wood III's madcap musical version of A Christmas Carol. Watching Wood repeat his way-over-the-top antics as Ebenezer Scrooge, English novelist Charles Dickens' malicious old misanthropic miser, has been a tradition of Triangle families since December 1974. The 2003 version of A Christmas Carol, which opens Wednesday night and runs through Dec. 17 at Raleigh Memorial Auditorium, is 29th edition of the most successful home-grown musical comedy in this state's history.
David Wood says, "There are two famous lines from A Christmas Carol — 'Bah, Humbug!' and 'God bless us every one.' If you were asked to select one of the two as being the line that is most associated with the work, which would you choose?
"We all have a little bit of Scrooge in us ... particularly during this time of year," Wood claims. "Seeing this show provides an opportunity to give vent to those feelings without the usual accompanying guilt. We make a transformation along with Scrooge and leave the theater feeling better than we did on our way in. That, I believe, is the key to the success of this particular adaptation. It doesn't merely entertain; it transforms. The audience is moved from laughter to tears and back again. That's a considerable achievement."
Wood claims, "A Christmas Carol is a story of discovery. A prodigal human being has lost his way in the maze of life, and has to find his way back to himself. It's a journey we all make at some point in our lives. Regardless of the theatrical liberties we take with Mr. Dickens, the work's statement of purpose and reconciliation translates even more powerfully to our age of postmodern devastation than it did in the Victorian age, when technology seemed to be tearing the very soul out of the people.
"Over the past 29 years," says David Wood, "I'd say that our version of A Christmas Carol has only been reviewed a half-dozen times. I think that's because it's like reviewing someone else's Christmas tree. How do you do something like that? The show is genuinely 'local.' It didn't originate on Broadway. The music wasn't composed in Russia. The adaptation was written here in Raleigh."
Wood notes, "The company is made up of local volunteers — many of them amateurs — many of them children. It's local, performed by amateurs, and it's still undeniably one of the most successful shows in this state's history. This production is like a hummingbird. It shouldn't be able to fly, but it does. And it doesn't just fly, it soars!
"The show is truly funny," he explains. "It's not just the topical humor that makes it accessible. This show had a production run in France and most of the audience didn't understand a word of English. They still laughed! That's when I learned a very valuable lesson: you can fake being serious or dramatic onstage. You can fake love and hate. You can't fake being funny.
"Something is either funny or it isn't," declares David Wood. "People either laugh or they don't. Period. For almost three decades, people have laughed at this show ... at the same jokes ... at the new twists we add each year. There's something universal in the humor we've supplied. We've consistently taken risks and we've consistently won. I'm very proud of that track record."
He adds, "I don't think any of us ever entertained the thought that this production would still be running 30 years after it first premiered here in Raleigh. We knew we had managed to put together something very special. We knew that before we opened. The incredible reaction we experienced from that first audience merely confirmed it. Hearts were absolutely glowing after that first opening night. We knew we'd mount it again the following year. But, 30 years? None of us ever imagined that.
"Blue Cross/Blue Shield of North Carolina has come onboard as a major Scenic Sponsor for A Christmas Carol," Wood proudly announces, "so the production will have new scenery for next year's run. The overhaul is timed to coincide with our 30th anniversary. Obviously, we're extremely grateful and very excited."
Wood says, "I confess to wondering each year how it's going to be possible to top the previous year's show. Somehow, we've always managed. I suppose, after 29 years, we're about to get it all right. You've heard about 'shooting from the hip?' Well, I think we've always shot from the heart. That's made an important difference in the quality of the product. There's an amazing connection with our audience. They're old friends (along with some new ones) who come to visit with us each year. They come from all over the country. The ingredients make for a fabulous 'family reunion.'
"The cast is simply fabulous this year," says David Wood, "and naturally the band members and production crew have been with us for years. We've really become a sort of extended family. We get together as a group only once a year, and wonder where the time has flown. We load into Memorial Auditorium and I find myself talking to a member of the crew: 'Didn't we just load out last year's show?' Once you're up and running, it's hard to believe an entire year has gone by.
"This year, Scrooge has new clothes!" Wood notes with obvious delight "Rita Riggs, an award-winning costume designer from Hollywood, has become part of our A Christmas Carol 'family' this year. She's worked for Alfred Hitchcock, John Houston, and Norman Lear. She designed an entirely new wardrobe for Scrooge — and wouldn't accept a penny for her amazing contribution. I can't describe what it's like to walk around in those costumes. It's brought even greater depth and dimension to the character.
"Physically, the show is very grueling for me," confesses David Wood, who has battled serious health problems in recent months. "I'm 56 years old this year. It's not as easy to do the things I once did. Add to that the fact that I went through four months of a still-undiagnosed chronic illness this year, and I found myself wondering if I was going to have the energy required to do the show again.
"Thankfully," he says, "something always takes over when you walk onto a stage. The lights, the audience, the holiday spirit — it's all so incredibly therapeutic. It's almost tangible. To stand on a stage ... to be loved and accepted by over two thousand people! To share laughter and even a few tears together. To leave feeling better than you did when you came in. You couldn't find a better flu shot in the world!"
Theatre in the Park presents A Christmas Carol Wednesday-Friday, Dec. 10-12, at 7 p.m.; Saturday, Dec. 13, at 2 and 7 p.m.; Sunday, Dec. 14, at 2 p.m.; and Monday-Wednesday, Dec. 15-17, at 7 p.m. in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium in the BTI Center for the Performing Arts, 1 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $12-$55. BTI Box Office: (919) 831-6060; Ticketmaster: 919/834-4000 or http://www.ticketmaster.com/venue/115203. TIP: http://theatreinthepark.com/frames/frame_a_christmas_carol.html [inactive 3/04] . Ira David Wood III: http://theatreinthepark.com/frames/frame_ira_david_wood_iii.html [inactive 3/04] . A Christmas Carol (via Online Literature Library): http://www.literature.org/authors/dickens-charles/christmas-carol/ [inactive 6/04]. Dickens on the Web (by David A. Perdue): http://www.fidnet.com/~dap1955/dickens/dickens_web.html.