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A Christmas Classic

BY EMMA MCCLATCHEY | DECEMBER 19, 2013 5:00 AM

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Many theater troupes have adapted Ebenezer Scrooge into many personas over the last 170 years, from a digitally animated Disney character voiced by Jim Carey to a snarky TV executive à la Bill Murray.

But City Circle Acting Company has taken Scrooge, his ghosts, and his London fellows back to their Victorian roots with its third-annual adaptation of Charles Dickens' classic tale A Christmas Carol.

"We tried our hardest to be close to the original, which makes this Christmas Carol stand out," director Josh Sazon said. "I think at the end of the day, it's a fresh and imaginative take on the material."

City Circle's production of A Christmas Carol, which premièred Dec. 13, will continue performances today, Friday, and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., as well as 2 p.m. Dec. 22 in the Coralville Center for the Performing Arts, 1301 Fifth St.. Tickets for the show range from $12 for children to $27 for premium seating.

While staging Dickens' tale is slowly becoming a holiday tradition for the Coralville company, Sazon has placed particular focus on the heart of A Christmas Carol, which has made it a perennial favorite.

"It boils down to the story  —  no matter how familiar you are with it, it resonates, which is why there are productions such as this one, as well as movies," he said.

This well-known story follows the wealthy Ebenezer Scrooge, a miser who prefers to mumble "Bah, humbug" all Christmas season long than give a single penny to the poor. But on Christmas Eve, Scrooge is visited by four spirits — his old business partner Jacob Marley and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future — who demonstrate to him the merits of love and generosity, not to mention the pitfalls of greed.

Though Sazon said it was a little intimidating to take on such an iconic story, he said few will have seen a Christmas Carol adaptation such as this one.

"It's stuck around because it essentially gives out the meaning of Christmas," Sazon said. "Some people might say it's a bit heavy-handed, but it's no less effective. It's a pretty amazing story. But they've seen so many versions of it that a lot of people aren't familiar with the original Victorian show."

Sazon has hoped to offer this "unique" take by crafting a simple set, limiting the number of characters in the play, and adapting his own script from Dickens' original novella, maintaining as much of the 19th-century language as possible. He has also added traditional carols throughout the play, performed by live brass, string, and woodwind musicians.

This vision enticed actor Joseph Dobrian to audition for the starring role.

"What I like about it is it's so faithful to the book," he said. "It's not experimental at all, even though there is certainly room for experimentation. If you want to find out what the book is about without reading the book, this is the play to see."

Like Sazon, Dobrian said he took his characterization of Scrooge from Dickens' text, finding Scrooge to be more than the old grump one often sees in modern adaptations.

"Scrooge has been a part on my bucket list since childhood," he said. "That part is very, very demanding both emotionally and physically. Even though it's a short play, I always end up physically worn out."

Dobrian wasn't the only one stretched as a performer. Jim Verry, who portrays Fezziwig in the show among other characters, said Sazon and their English dialect coach Mary Rinderspacher challenged the cast to "milk it for what it's worth."

"They delivered the 'gift' to us to have fun and take many of the characters, including Fezziwig, over the top," Verry said. "We have been driven tirelessly in rehearsals to make each moment, each word, count so as to make the story come alive for our audiences."

Scrooge's transformation into a benevolent man may be at the center of the story, but Dobrian said he still had the most fun playing up the "nasty" parts of his character — much like Kevin Burford, who portrays the eerie Jacob Marley.

"I want them to see the best Marley they've ever seen, [both] adults and children," he said. "You want to honor the tradition of the part but also want to personalize it."

Even though his "gruesome" character has the most theatrical entrance in the show, Burford said the fog, costumes, and props don't overshadow Dickens' poetic language.

"It's not a real opulent set," he said. "It's pretty much a bare stage, bits of furniture and props. It gives you a chance to better concentrate on the bones of the story without frills distracting you."

For audiences who like a few frills, City Circle will also present its Holiday Cabaret on Saturday. The cabaret is a variety show featuring holiday-theme skits, songs, dancing, comedy, and even a Cirque-du-Soleil-esque gymnastic act, with a "nice," family-friendly show at 7:30 p.m. and a "naughty," adult-centered one at 10 p.m. Audiences can save $5 by purchasing tickets to both the Holiday Cabaret and Christmas Carol.

Patrick Du Laney, one of the cabaret organizers, said the two programs make nice companion pieces — especially when coupled with the "naughty" cabaret.

"It takes familiar Christmas traditions like TV specials and carols and turns them on their ear a bit," he said. "There's a lot of family fare going on, so you can bring your children to A Christmas Carol and then leave them at the sitters, grab a glass of wine, and go to the cabaret."

Whether a show is celebrating or lambasting the holiday spirit, you can expect to see a range of ages and talents onstage, from Dobrian, who has spent 30 years professionally acting in New York, to children just learning to master an English accent.

"I had a great deal of trepidation about performing with a lot of very young, inexperienced actors, but I have been pleasantly surprised with each and every one of the young cast members," Dobrian said. "Without the kids, there is no Christmas Carol."

And even though A Christmas Carol has been a source of lighthearted entertainment since 1843, Verry said the message at the heart of the story may be more relevant than ever — for Scrooges, Fezziwigs, and Bob Cratchets alike.

"Christmas Carol, for myself, is a powerful epiphany during a season when the chaotic climate of our culture struggles to suck us all up like a vacuum into materialism," Verry said. "Charles Dickens' story depicts the simple joys and pleasures of life found through our relationships with one another. As Tiny Tim says, 'God bless us, everyone.' "


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