(Beatty Barnes Jr. portraying Ebenezer Scrooge in Virginia Stage Company’s “A Merry Christmas Carol.” Photo by Sam Flint.
By Jerome Langston
“We’ve been able to build this – for the last 3 years,” says Tom Quaintance, Virginia Stage Company’s producing Artistic Director, just a couple days ago during a break in rehearsal for A Merry Christmas Carol, the enduring holiday classic that the company produces annually. It’s only the 3rd day of rehearsals for the play, and the cast is currently rehearsing at downtown Norfolk’s Harrison Opera House, before moving on to staging the Dickens classic at the historic Wells Theatre, later this month. Tom and I are joined at the table of this little break room, by actor Beatty Barnes, who reprises the iconic role of Scrooge – his third consecutive year playing the character in VSC’s annual production.
Tom directs this current, season 45 production of A Merry Christmas Carol, an adaptation of the Charles Dickens novella, A Christmas Carol, by playwright Mark Shanahan – who will himself directed Dial ‘M’ For Murder in January. He explains that it’s rare to have the opportunity in professional theater to develop the same show over the course of years. This year’s Carol will distinguish itself through its larger cast – there are 15 performers on stage this year, whereas there were only eight when this Mark Shanahan adaptation was first produced in 2021, as well as through the expansion of multiple scenes, which are now fully realized visually. “We’re just finding new stuff everyday – it’s really exciting,” said Tom, regarding the discovery process in rehearsals, as the work continues to develop. “What additional people allow us to do, is to expand the community that we’re building on stage,” he added.
The upcoming month-long run of A Merry Christmas Carol, will follow the enormous success of this past month’s Fiddler on the Roof, which opened season 45, and enjoyed the highest grossing box-office run of any show in Virginia Stage Company history, even surpassing the success of season 38’s The Wiz. Tom credits that huge success to not only the remarkable quality of VSC’s excellent production of the classic musical itself – which featured a virtuoso lead performance by actor and baritone John Payonk, who portrayed Tevye – but also to the community support and buzz generated by the company’s partnership with United Jewish Federation of Tidewater and Simon Family JCC.
When the show opened to much fanfare on October 7 – it was the same day that Hamas terrorists surprise attacked Israel – a deplorable act that has sparked a deeply troubling, and bloody war. “And I’ll tell you, the difference between how the audience was watching it in previews, and how they watched it the rest of the run – was different,” said Tom. “There was a different energy in the room.” Besides the impact of the many sold-out performances themselves, the company created, along with its producing partner, thoughtful related programming that engaged the community, prior to the show’s blockbuster run.
A Christmas Carol was first published in 1843, in London – and introduced the world to the character of Ebenezer Scrooge, an elderly miser, who is visited by the three ghosts of Christmas, which leads to his eventual transformation into a much kinder, more generous version of himself. The Charles Dickens penned classic remains one of the most popular in our literary canon and has led to a ton of adaptations for the stage and screen, over the course of nearly two centuries since it was first published. Here in Hampton Roads, VSC’s well-regarded annual production of the play has become such a successful long-running holiday tradition – that it’s hard to imagine the Christmas season without it.
What excites Tom most though, since first directing the Shanahan adaptation in 2021, is getting the opportunity to develop and refine the company’s production of the classic play, each year. “I have really appreciated that as a director, but also watching how Beatty has found additional depth, as we keep going – and that we’re just building,” he said. “It’s a 3-year rehearsal process.” We all chuckled a bit after Tom said that. The director loves his lead actor’s continuing work as Scrooge. Just like with Hamlet, “it’s one of those characters that carries the piece.”
“I’m still finding stuff out.” said Beatty, a while later in our conversation. I’m still learning…growing with this character.” As this is the veteran actor and comic’s third time occupying the consequential role – I asked him what he was most excited about this time. “The new cast – that’s exciting, and working with Tom again, and Refiye…” replied the actor. Refiye Tappan is the play’s music director, and she is also one of the actors. The accomplished pianist was in last year’s production as well and has earned major kudos from both Tom and Beatty, on how much she’s added – especially musically – to the work.
Getting back to Beatty, though – his casting as Scrooge back in 2021, was also notable because the iconic character is rarely played by a Black actor, and had never been so, in VSC’s history. The actor’s race “is almost entirely a complete non-issue, which does not mean it’s a complete non-issue,” Tom would later say, after asking him if the casting choice had garnered any “feedback.” Other than a single phone call that Tom endured regarding the choice, Beatty’s work as Scrooge has clearly been embraced by the diverse audience of VSC patrons. “I love Beatty’s work in this,” added Tom, towards the end of the interview. “We both want an electric, alive production that connects to the audience, and is filled with joy and depth.”
WANT TO GO?
“A Merry Christmas Carol”
November 25 – December 24
Virginia Stage Company