Two holiday shows are coming to stage this week to bring audiences a dose of traditional and modern stories of the Christmas season. Both include misanthropic protagonists—Scrooge from “A Christmas Carol” and Crumpet from “Santaland Diaries”—who turn the twinkling lights away from the merry magic of the season and onto a heft of cynicism and bitterness, instead. Of course, along the way self-awareness rises to prove the holidays are less about gift-giving and more about giving of self.
Panache Theatrical Productions is bringing David Sedaris’ “Santaland Diaries” to life for the 13th year in Wilmington. Kevin Wilson will be taking on Crumpet the disgruntled elf (based on Sedaris’ stint as an elf during Christmas at Macy’s Santaland in NYC). “I love how ‘Santaland’ strikes a perfect balance between the ‘bah humbug’ attitude and the Christmas spirit,” Wilson tells. “The audience gets to laugh at the absurdity of our traditions but also walks away with a new appreciation of them.”
Sedaris’ sardonic humor shines bright in all of Crumpet’s monologue—which means actors who take on the elf are tasked with a heavy burden of carrying the show’s punchy quips and diatribe about living in a capitalistic society on their own. Wilson has remained focused on the reality of the elf’s situation to bring nuance to the character, rather than depend upon solely the humor of the environment surrounding him.
“As cynical as [Crumpet] is, he plays the game in order to keep his job, and I think he learns something about himself in the end,” Wilson notes. “This is something our director has had to remind me of, and it adds another dimension to the character.”
Anthony Lawson, who founded Panache with Holli Saperstein, is in the director’s chair, guiding the way for Wilson. Lawson has anchored the show as Crumpet before, too.
“I have not seen all the ‘Santaland’ productions over the years,” Wilson admits, “but I did have a great time when Jason Hatfield played Crumpet 10 years ago. His confidence on stage removed the fourth wall, and he really created a conversation with the audience.”
It’s something Wilson is keeping in mind as he moves forward in giving his own take and voice to the elf-in-training. “You can be an entrance elf, a water-cooler elf, a bridge elf, train elf, maze elf, island elf, magic window elf, usher elf, cash register elf, or exit elf,” Sedaris’ writes as he rallies Santa’s little helpers.
“Performing comedy is always a little intimidating because it requires such careful timing,” Wilson adds. “I’m also stepping into a role that has been played by some of my favorite actors in Wilmington so I feel like I’m filling some pretty big pointy shoes. I just hope to do the writing justice as well as they have over the years.”
The 2018 version will be set in the ‘90s, which is when Sedaris wrote the essay for NPR, in 1992. Taking place at Thalian Hall’s Ruth and Buckey Stein Theatre, the Not Ready for Christmas Carolers, consisting of Kaleb Bradley, Amy Carter, and Jacy Coffman, will return to add even more spunk.
“They will be singing some classics, as well as putting a new spin on some old favorites,” Wilson says. “They are all three gifted actors and singers that create beautiful music and make you laugh your head off at the same time. They really make the show, in my opinion.”
Next door on Thalian’s main stage, another seasonal romp will be led by Thalian Hall executive director Tony Rivenbark. It will be his 15th year taking on Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol”—only this time in the form of a Broadway musical, with music by Alan Menken (“Beauty and the Beast,” “Little Shop of Horrors”), presented by Thalian Association. The musical modernizes the 1843 literary classic Dickens intended.
“It’s still the same story,” Rivenbark clarifies, “but it is definitely geared toward a current audience. One change is a reference to Scrooge’s father being sent to a debtors’ prison, which is not in the original novel, but actually happened to Dickens as a child.”
Rivenbark’s familiarity with Scrooge is unmatched. He even had Steve Cooper write a version for him, which was presented by Thalian Association at Thalian Hall in 1981. “[Scrooge] is a tour de force for actors,” Rivenbark says. The character’s disdain for human kind, all brought on by questionable choices in life, and then to find redemption … it’s a story of transformation many attach to during a season where hope reigns.
“It is great fun but exhausting,” Rivenbark admits. “The version I have played the most is [for] the Theatre Exchange, [written by Rob Zapple, now a county commissioner, and Matthew Faison], and which, though set in America, is very close to the original novel. This is a lighter version . . . more akin to Albert Finney’s 1970 film or Ira David Wood’s version.”
In the place of many of Scrooge’s monologues are song and dance numbers. Some are complicated, too, according to Rivenbark. “So the lines can easily get mixed up in your head because you are saying the same thing in the same way but using slightly different language,” he tells. “The score is indeed a challenge, but my approach is no different than any version I have ever done. It is the same character no matter what you do with it, which is as it should be.”
Though Rivenbark adores the role, he has only attended two live performances of “A Christmas Carol”: at Madison Square Garden, which he calls a spectacle more like a Vegas-style show, and Patrick Stewart’s one-man performance. Yet, his favorite comes from the screen—1951’s version starring Alastair Sim, who continually inspires Rivenbark’s own performances.
“As long as the basic journey is made by Scrooge and the audience leaves in a spirit of good will and a willingness to support those less fortunate in the world, then no matter the version, the experience works and is true to underlying message,” Rivenbark hails. “It is timeless.”