Above - Fezziwig's Party; Below - Carolers and Scrooge in foreground - Photos Credit - Ashley Smith of Wide Eyed Studios

Hedgerow Theatre Magically Conjures Up Holiday Spirits in A Christmas Carol - Don't Miss This Annual Tradition!

We had the good fortune to visit Hedgerow Theatre on Saturday, November 30, to see their adaptation of A Christmas Carol, an annual tradition now in its 28th year.  We say good fortune for good reason – it was a remarkably magical experience, one in which we felt we had been whisked back to the 1840s, to Dickensian London.    To paraphrase the opening lines of the original 1843 text of A Christmas Carol:

Hedgerow Theatre’s production was remarkable, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.  Its quality was created by the adaptation of the text, the actors, the prop master, the wardrobe designer, and the lighting director, among others.

Hedgerow Theatre’s production of A Christmas Carol was first-rate in every respect – acting, singing, costumes, caroling, setting, properties, and overall theatrical experience. Why?

The first reason was the setting.  We can imagine no theatre better suited to A Christmas Carol than the Hedgerow Theatre.  While the repertory company – the oldest continually operating one in America! -  has been in existence since 1923, the building is far older than the Roaring Twenties.  The theatre is in a renovated grist mill, built in 1840 – making it, ironically, three years older than the novel itself!   You will find opportunities to see A Christmas Carol in a theatre older than the book on very rare occasions, if ever!

And the old-school, original stone walls - in which every grotto was filled with Christmas decorations - provide a blissful ambience for the cozy 120-seat theatre, in which there are no bad seats.  It is located in Rose Valley, Pennsylvania, an idyllic suburban community, just outside Media, the Delaware County seat, a short trip from Philadelphia and anywhere in the Philadelphia suburbs, due to the proximity of the Blue Route (I-476).

Theatre is all about the suspension of disbelief.  Accordingly, when you see the Hedgerow’s faithfully accurate version of an 1843 novel, in a theatre contained inside an 1840 grist mill, we really did feel that the supernatural had somehow put us back into that more genteel and gracious, early Victorian time.  The suspension of disbelief that we experienced, was about as strong as in any theatrical production we’ve ever seen, given the time of the novel’s publication and the rural, agrarian setting.

We considered that this was like going back over a century and a half in time, having just read the hot-off-the-presses Dickens book, and seeing a theatrical production of it (much in the same way that movies are made of popular novels today).

Also, A Christmas Carol has been presented on stage, literally – and continuously –for 136 years - as long as the novel has been published!   Dickens was the most popular author of his generation, and unauthorized versions of his novels were frequently staged in London and elsewhere.   In an era before royalties existed, Dickens welcomed these productions, mainly because they served as free publicity for his works. 

Dickens himself had a lifelong interest in theatre; he was always an avid theatregoer.  He even performed as an actor, and one of his favorite activities was narrating A Christmas Carol on stage.  Unlike the stage versions, Dickens made money from this.  However, the extra cash wasn’t the only (or even the primary) reason he did it; he enjoyed performing in front of an audience.

And although Dickens won’t be at the Hedgerow, of course, the experience, from the moment you walk in the door, you get the impression that Dickens himself might walk on stage at any moment and welcome you!


Above - the scenery and props make you feel like you're in Victorian London.  Photo credit - Ashley Smith of Wide Open Studios.

You are greeted by carolers in the lobby when you arrive, in full Victorian costume.  Caroling takes place every 45 minutes, before the curtain (i.e., 6:15 PM for a 7 PM performance), and stops right before the curtain rises, since all of the carolers are also in the cast!

The total immersion continues, as those running the box office and the concession stand are part of the cast, also!  We’ve attended many theatrical productions over the years, but this was the first time that the people whom we met at Will Call, or at the concession stand, were in costume and would appear on stage!

Although we have seen many, many motion picture version of the story, as well as faithfully visiting – on an annual basis - the walk-through version at Wanamakers, this, surprisingly, was the first time we had ever actually seen it live on stage.  Having done so, it is easy to see why the Hedgerow has been doing it for the last 28 years.   Our only regret is that we hadn’t seen it before!

The play runs in two acts, with a brief intermission, and its running time is 1 hour, 45 minutes (including intermission).  Some practical advice – try to get there as early as you can, so that you can enjoy the entire performance of the lobby carolers!  If consistent with your schedule, try to arrive no later than 55 minutes prior to curtain - in order to have time to park, go to the box office desk, and enjoy the opening act, so to speak!  (I.e., if your production starts at 7 PM, try to arrive no later than 6:05 PM)   Doing so is well worth it.  We fully enjoyed the carolers in the lobby, as it really puts you in the mood for the play itself. 

If you’re coming south on the Blue Route (which, if you’re coming from anywhere north of Media, you probably are), you probably are) try to allow some extra time for when the Blue Route narrows from three lanes to two, southbound.    Also, the curtain rises at 7 sharp.   Free parking is available, with guides there with orange cones, to shepherd you into your spot.

For us, one of the most intriguing aspects, was seeing how the novel would be adapted on stage.  We re-read the novel, prior to attending (another thing we’d recommend before you see it!).  Because the work is in the public domain, there is no official stage version of it.   After the performance, we interviewed Jared Reed, the director and author of the adaptation (who also did the lights), who told us that the Hedgerow version was largely based on the one Dickens himself had used – which only added to the verisimilitude of the production as Dickensian!

Our favorite aspect of the adaptation, was how adroitly Christmas carols themselves were woven into the production.  With the title being A Christmas Carol, the motif was extremely effective, as the cast sings many carols throughout the play.  (Some fun trivia – the actual Christmas carol, to which  the title refers, is “God Bless You, Merry Gentlemen”, an old traditional English carol, which is performed in the opening scene!)  

Reed said that he deliberately chose ones that were period accurate – and we agree completely.  The selections were perfect, as they reflected the historical accuracy of what 1840s English characters would have sung.  Among others, you’ll hear “The Wassail Song”, “In the Bleak Mid-Winter”, “The First Noel”, “The Holly and the Ivy”, and even a less well-known, Celtic carol called “Balulalow”.   Due to the frequency of the carols, they act as a sort of Greek chorus throughout the play, a nice artistic touch.

Also, the show is narrated by different characters throughout, which permits more of the novel’s superb text to be shared with the audience – another aspect which reminds us of Dickens himself narrating the work. 

The acting was tremendous, throughout, at all levels.  Brian McCann (Scrooge) was magnificent, throughout.  Scrooge is a very demanding leading role, because of the fact that he is onstage in literally every scene (the novel is told through his perspective), and so even when he visits his past, present and future and he has no dialogue, he still has to react to what he sees.  He also has the challenge of fundamentally and radically transforming his personality, throughout the play, which is not something that is required of most stage characters.

Thane Madsen (Young Scrooge, Ensemble) brings the young Scrooge to life in a very compelling way, as we see him evolve from a young man in love, to an embittered individual more interested in money than his fiancée.  McCann and Madsen are the first Scrooges we’ve ever seen live on stage, and they could not have played them any better.

Many of the actors play multiple parts, which is also enjoyable, as they have the opportunity to demonstrate their range.  Zoran Kovcic  plays Mr. Fezziwig, as well as the Ghosts of Christmas Present and Future, and narrate – and excels at all of them! 

Adam Altman (Bob Cratchit, Ensemble) also turns in a fine performance as Scrooge’s silver-lining, eternally optimistic, long-suffering clerk - one determined to celebrate Christmas properly on 15 shillings a week, no matter how much adversity he and his family face.

Any actor playing Scrooge’s young nephew, Fred, is de facto playing Dickens himself, who was only 31 when he wrote the novel.  There is little doubt that Fred – a young man, married, and with a deep affection for Christmas and its spirit of generosity and celebration, all traits of Dickens himself at the time – was the author’s way of inserting himself into the novel. 

Above - Partying hard at Nephew Fred's house!  Photo credit - Ashley Smith of Wide Open Studios.

In fact, Fred’s soliloquy on Christmas in the beginning - when Scrooge challenges Fred as to why he even bothers to celebrate Christmas at all - is probably Dickens’ way of sharing his own feelings on the holiday.  

Fred also has the most profound insights into early Scrooge.  He points out that all for the considerable misery he inflicts on his clerk and his debtors, the cruelty he shows his fiancée, and the insults he hurls at Fred and the charity solicitor who visit his counting-house (who knock on the door with the best of intentions, no less), the early Scrooge deals most harshly with himself – he is his own worst enemy.  As Fred puts it, “I feel sorry for him.  Who suffers most from his ill-whims?  Himself, always.”

Michael McInerney does a superb job of portraying the de facto Dickens, and Joanna Bak complements him well as his wife.   Our favorite scenes were the party scenes, at Fezziwig’s during Christmas Past, and Fred’s Christmas dinner during Christmas Present.  They are among the happiest scenes in the novel, and they give the ensemble a chance to shine.

Stage Manager Amanda Coffin keeps the pace moving perfectly, as the actors switch most of the sets and there is very little transition time between scenes.  And the sets and props evoke the world of 19th-century London for the theatregoer.

In summary, it’s a wonderful experience for the proverbial most wonderful time of the year, and we urge you not to miss the Hedgerow’s illustrious production of the perennial Christmas favorite.

A Christmas Carol runs from Friday, November 29 to December 24 (Christmas Eve), 2019.    Productions are virtually all on weekends, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.  Since there are almost no weeknight shows, we’d recommend that you don’t wait till the last minute to get your tickets – the small theatre sells out easily.

You can contact them online and find a complete performance schedule, at https://hedgerowtheatre.org/performance/mainstageseason/a-christmas-carol-2019/

Seating charts are available online to help you decide which dates and seats are right for you.  You can also call 610.565.4211.  Their address is: 

Hedgerow Theatre

64 Rose Valley Rd

Rose Valley, PA 19063-4218

 

Merry Christmas!