Clarence Brown tells familiar tale in new 'Carol' adaptation

Shelton Tison  and David Kortemeier are Tiny Tim and Scrooge in the Clarence Brown Theatre's production of "A Christmas Carol."

Shelton Tison and David Kortemeier are Tiny Tim and Scrooge in the Clarence Brown Theatre's production of "A Christmas Carol."

The University of Tennessee's Clarence Brown Theatre presents a new adaptation of Charles Dickens' classic with its Nov. 29-Dec. 23 production of "A Christmas Carol."

The audience favorite about Scrooge, Tiny Tim and a trio of ghosts also is expressed with new costumes, a new set and new music. It's shorter than previous versions, performed in one act without intermission. UT visiting guest artist David Kortemeier leads the 24-member cast as Scrooge, reprising the role from Clarence Brown's 2011 production.

For five years the theater performed a "Carol" adaptation by Ed Morgan and Joseph Hanreddy. This year director Casey Sams, a UT associate theater professor, selected an adaptation by Barbara Field. While this is her first time directing "Carol," Sams choreographed previous Clarence Brown "Carols."

This year's play remains in Dickens' Victorian era, and Sams says "all the characters you have to have are there." Field's work incorporates a lot of Dickens' descriptive language. "There's really a nice structure as to how the narrators of the story kind of live through the telling of the story. It's that 'once upon a time' quality that is present. I like being reminded that Dickens wrote this as a story to be told," says Sams.

The adaptation also gave UT room to adapt, "to make our own discoveries about how it would work," says Sams. So the production's music is live and played on stage by three costume-clad musicians incorporated into the play. Music includes some lesser known songs like an instrumental version of "Bring the Torch, Jeannette, Isabella." "There are some that are a little less familiar but people will go, 'Oh, I know that from somewhere,' " says Sams.

While Sams isn't giving away the surprise, she hints about a change to the all-important Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come. The character has long been represented as a black robed, hooded and extremely tall costume. This year, the costume remains in storage. Instead Sams says, the ghost is "something different, something with a bit more scariness to it.

"I've always loved the huge creature. As the choreographer I've helped the actor inside figure out how to move it …. But it's hard to keep him scary the whole time … So this is more of a creepy feeling you get out of the corner of your eye."

"Carol" itself nearly went the way of Christmas Yet to Come's robe. Initial plans were to retire the Morgan-Hanreddy adaptation and give Dickens a hiatus. During a faculty meeting to plan the 2012-13 season, other plays for December were discussed. But the conversation returned to "Carol."

"It kind of came around to 'Why don't we do a different 'Christmas Carol?' We know audiences want it, and if it's that we want to have something new then let's stick with the same story and do it in a new way,' " Sams recalls. "I wasn't the only one who felt that way but I might have been the one who opened my mouth and said it."

Sams loves the story of "Carol;" her favorite film adaptation is the 1970 musical starring Albert Finney.

"In all of the craziness around the holiday season, it can be so easy to lose track of really what the holiday is all about. I defy you to see 'Christmas Carol' and not have it open your heart to the deeper meaning of the holiday season. Regardless of what your personal belief or faith structure is, 'Christmas Carol' is just a reminder that we are on a 'shared journey,' as (the Ghost of) Christmas Present says.

"Every time I came back to this story I am amazed yet again that Dickens could, in one very short little novella, really capture the essential essence and I think the conflict in the human heart. That we are at the same time kind of greedy and fearful and grasping and we are also capable of being generous and loving and supportive," she says. "I think that's the thing that's magic about 'Christmas Carol.' We see ourselves in Bob Cratchit but we also see ourselves in Scrooge. And we are reminded yet again that we can be redeemed because none of us is a lost cause."

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'A Christmas Carol'

What: Clarence Brown Theatre production of Charles Dickens' storynWhere: Clarence Brown Theatre, University of Tennessee

When: Nov. 29-Dec. 23; 7:30 p.m. Nov. 29-Dec. 1, Dec. 5-8, Dec. 12-15, Dec. 20-22, 2 p.m. Dec. 2, Dec. 9, Dec. 16 & Dec. 23

Tickets: $20 adult, $17 senior citizen, $10 UT faculty/staff, $12 non-UT student, free UT student Nov. 29 preview; $40 adult, $35 senior, $20 non-UT student, $10 UT student Nov. 30 opening; $25 adult, $19 senior, $12 UT faculty/staff or non-UT student, $5 UT student for Wednesday or Thursday show, $30 adult, $25 senior, $15 UT faculty/staff or non-UT student, $5 UT student Friday, Saturday or Sunday show, at www.clarencebrowntheatre.com or 865-974-5161

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