After 34 years, the Children’s Theater of Madison is saying “Bah Humbug!” to tradition and putting the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future on the shelf for a while. Each year, CTM has presented “A Christmas Carol” on the stage of the Capitol Theater for the Madison community with tremendous spirit.
But after more than 30 years of Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim and old Fezziwig’s Christmas parties, the theater company is offering audiences a new tale of redemption this holiday season with a musical adaption of the beloved Frank Capra film “It’s A Wonderful Life.”
The 1946 film, starring James Stewart and Donna Reed, tells the heartwarming story of George Bailey, a small-town man who is given the chance to see what his life would be like had he never existed. After many frustrating years of putting others needs ahead of his own, George finds himself in a difficult situation that makes him want to end it all.
Luckily, the prayers of his friends and family are heard, and an angel is sent down to give George a different perspective on how wonderful his life really is. Nominated for five Oscars, and number 11 on the American Film Institute’s Greatest Movies of All Time, it’s safe to say that “It’s a Wonderful Life” is an American classic.
After over 30 years of bringing “A Christmas Carol” to the stage, breaking tradition was a big decision for Producing Artistic Director, Roseann Sheridan, and the board of directors at CTM.
“As we discussed ‘A Christmas Carol,'” Sheridan says, “We thought, ‘Maybe we should see what happens if we offer an alternative!’…Although we are planning on bringing ‘Christmas’ back next year.”
While the board considered “White Christmas,” “Miracle on 34th St,” and “The Grinch” as possibilities, none of the productions fit what they were looking for – until they came across Sheldon Harnick and Joe Rapaso’s “A Wonderful Life”.
Originally showcased at the University of Michigan in 1986, “A Wonderful Life” has only appeared in a handful of places on the East Coast since then. After Sheridan looked over different adaptations of the Capra film, she felt that Harnick and Rapaso’s version was true to the original story without being “cutesy” or “self-conscious.” And so, as of Spring 2010, the Children’s Theater of Madison took a leap of faith and started up the casting process for George Bailey and his crew of faithful friends.
Seeking a range of actors who could dance and sing, Sheridan immediately turned to married couple Scott and Clare Haden for the leading roles of George and Mary. Both professional actors, the couple is very familiar with CTM through Scott’s four-year run as Bob Cratchit in “A Christmas Carol” and Clare’s role as the ghost of Christmas Past.
“They have great chemistry,” Sheridan says, “and both commit 100 percent.”
In the pivotal roll of the angel Clarence, professional Madison actor Michael Herold, who Sheridan claims has “an impish charm,” helps George realize how different life would be had he never been born. And with a cast of over 50 talented actors and a live orchestra, the Children’s Theater of Madison is hardly a show just for kiddies.
“When people hear ‘Children’s Theater,’ they only hear the world ‘children,'” Sheridan says. And while some theaters around the country interpret “children’s theater” as production companies whose actors barely hit four feet tall, the cast of “A Wonderful Life” ranges from age 7 to 74.
The youngest member of the production plays Bailey’s youngest daughter Zuzu, who can be seen twirling around in her nightgown on the stages of the Capitol Theater during rehearsals.
UW senior Jon Hause, who portrayed young Ebenezer Scrooge in last year’s performance of “A Christmas Carol,” joins CTM again this year as the young George Bailey.
“It’s cool to see a different caliber of performers, compared to UT shows that are mostly students, come and add a really fresh twist to a lot of things,” Hause said. “It’s also been great to work alongside so many kids because they’re all so unpredictable that it pretty much forces you to stay on your toes.”
Together, the cast has such energy and joy, it’s undeniable that despite the age differences among them, they have become a family during their time together. “There’s a lot of camaraderie,” Sheridan said with a smile.
So for those of us who shudder at the idea of change, the Children’s Theater of Madison isn’t trying to completely stray from Christmas tradition. With “A Wonderful Life,” the cast hopes to offer audiences a fresh take on love and the relationships that make the hard times worthwhile.
Frank Capra’s story is a timeless, American “Christmas Carol,” and after watching this talented group of actors bring Bedford Falls to life, you may be surprised at just how wonderful change can be.
“A Wonderful Life” will play from Dec. 10 to Dec. 23 in the Capitol Theater at the Overture Center for the Arts. Student tickets are $18.