"Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.”
An inauspicious start, perhaps, but that iconic line begins proceedings in what has become—in its 176-year history—one of the most beloved and widely cherished yuletide tales of all time: Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”
Are there any unfamiliar with crotchety old Ebenezer Scrooge and has life-changing Christmas Eve encounter with three ghosts—four, to count Marley? Phantoms of Christmases past, present and future take the old miser on a time-travelling tour of his greatest mistakes.
The story has become so ubiquitous that the name “scrooge” has even evolved into a colloquial, lowercased insult. As has the crank’s famous catchphrase, “humbug.”
The novella has been adapted countless times to stage, film and television, and has even become a treasured tradition of the Wood River Valley.
Beginning in 2006, local theater giant Patsy Wygle has been staging a musical version of Dickens’ classic to help the citizens of and visitors to the valley ring in the holiday.
“We did it, I believe, eight times in a row. Then we were going to stop and do another Christmas show or maybe take a season off and, well, I like to say we got hate mail, but really people reached out to us in large numbers, telling us how much it meant to them and their family, how much they wanted us to bring it back. I didn’t realize at the time, but of course if you saw it for the first time when you were 5, then that became your holiday tradition,” she explained.
Since then, “A Christmas Carol” has returned biannually. Having missed last year, the production will recur for one last run of the decade. From Friday, Dec. 20, until Tuesday, Dec. 24—Christmas Eve—Laughing Stock Theater Company will perform its much-loved rendition nightly at the Argyros Performing Arts Center, 120 Main St. S., Ketchum.
For many years, the role of Scrooge has been filled by actor Steve D’Smith, who will reprise this part again for the 2019 series.
“He’s a classic Scrooge,” Wygle said. “Steve’s a very talented actor. He’s a professional and his takes—his expressions—are just really priceless.”
D’Smith leads a cast of nearly 40 performers, including whole families and ranging in age from 5 to 70. For the production and much of the audience, “A Christmas Carol” is a family undertaking. The cast includes siblings, parents performing alongside their children—even Wygle’s own son, Jamie, will return to the stage alongside his mother this year. In the original Ketchum run, Jamie played the young boy who delivers a goose to the Cratchits, but has since graduated to the role of Young Scrooge, as he appears in Christmases Past.
“That’s what makes it so charming. It’s a community, family endeavor,” said actor and stage manager Matt Musgrove.
Wygle praised the often unsung and unassuming talent in the valley, relating that some audience members have told her, “I’ve come every single time you’ve done it and it’s not just the story and the candles at the end, but to see people I know, sometimes unexpectedly. ‘Oh my gosh, I know that guy from the gym!’ or ‘That’s my hair stylist!’”
Many of the actors fulfill multiple roles, requiring costume changes. The full production boasts an enormous wardrobe, designed by Kathy Wygle and Trish Lewis. In addition to the costumes are dozens of props designed by Owen Parmele and ornate sets.
“About 15 years ago, I saw Patrick Stewart do ‘A Christmas Carol’ onstage in a one-man show. One man! Look at what it takes us to tell the same story,” Wygle said with a laugh, cataloging the props and costumes.
Of course, Sir Patrick Stewart’s solo rendition was not a musical. Wygle spoke to the magical effect of the songs, saying that some years, she feels reluctant to put in the work and mount the show again right up until the point that she hears the music.
Pianist Paul Gregory and musical director Patty Parsons will provide all the instrumental accompaniment to the many vocalists on stage.
Music, lyrics, set, costumes, props and acting all cohere to bring Dickens’ words alive.
“I was reading an article today about the brilliance of bringing in the past, present and future and encompassing all that time,” Musgrove said. “It inspires you to reflect on your life, how you present yourself to people, where you want to go from here.”
“It makes the story literally timeless,” Wygle chimed in.
Despite the story’s inherent timelessness and the recurring nature of the Laughing Stock production, Wygle and company manage to repeat it without falling into redundancy, keeping things familiar, entertaining and comforting, but also updating and improving each year.
“We try to innovate every time,” Wygle said. “It’s all too easy to say, ‘This is how we’ve always done it and it’s worked.’ We like to do more, to do things differently.”
This year, the venue is obviously new, as The Argyros didn’t exist two years ago, but the 2019 performances will see new props, new choreography by Megan Mahoney and some new special effects, including snowfall.
“I’ve wanted snow every single time we’ve done it and now, finally, we’ll have some snow! It just makes it extra magical,” said Wygle, elated.
There are few, if any, Christmas stories more ubiquitous in the Western canon that Dickens’ masterpiece—actually, the tale helped popularize several longstanding Christmas traditions in Britain, America and Canada, as well as, apparently, the Wood River Valley.
Tickets are available online now at theargyros.org. Adult prices vary from $30 to $40. Students 18 and younger may attend for $15 to $25. Visit laughingstocktheater.com to learn more. The Friday, Saturday and Monday performances begin at 7 p.m. and the Sunday and Tuesday shows are 2 p.m. matinees.
So, prepare for song and dance and holiday magic. To quote Tiny Tim, “A merry Christmas to us all.”