Cider Mill Stage brings back beloved tradition

Reviewed by George Basler

Watching a performance of A Christmas Carol at the Cider Mill Stage in Endicott is a little like sharing a bowl of Christmas punch with an old friend whom you haven’t seen in a while.

First performed in 1979, John Bielenberg’s adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic is more than a stage production. It’s a holiday tradition that has played to thousands of patrons over the years. After a one-year absence, it’s back at the Cider Mill this year thanks to Brad Morgan, a former member of the Cider Mill Playhouse, who created the Clocktower Theater Company in Scranton, Pa., to keep the production alive.

Judging from the opening night (Dec. 15) audience, the production was certainly missed. Nearly ever seat was filled, and audience members greeted the performance enthusiastically. As one theater-goer told me at intermission, “It’s nice to have it back.”

When a show has this much of a tradition, a review is almost beside the point. Audience members know what they’re going to get and would probably cry “Bah, humbug” if they got anything different.

Let me stipulate: I’m fully aware that I’m a little jaded when it comes to A Christmas Carol. The story is so familiar, and has been done in so many different forms, that it long ago lost its ability to surprise me.

Nonetheless, despite its predictability, the Cider Mill production is a lively and engaging show.

The production is a lot more Disney than Dickens. Despite the appearance of two emaciated children, Ignorance and Want, the production shies away from the harder edges of Dickens’ work, notably the bleak poverty of Victorian England.

Instead, the show emphasizes humor and the warm and fuzzy elements of the Dickens story. It deftly incorporates musical numbers into the action. And there is nothing that will upset young children, which is probably why parents keep bringing their offspring year after year.

To get a less jaded viewpoint, I quizzed a group of seventh and eighth graders from Maine-Endwell Middle School who sat near me in the theater. They unanimously gave the show a big thumb’s up. They especially liked the humor and music and the fact that actors were performing the show live in front of them.

I must admit I felt a little tug of nostalgia myself. My wife and I took our daughter to see A Christmas Carol some 25 years ago when she was the same age as some of the youngsters at opening night. If memory serves me correctly, the show is pretty much as I remember it. As Bielenberg and company would probably say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Morgan’s direction is solid, and the 11-person cast brings the story and characters to life.

In keeping with the overall tone of the show, Bernie Sheredy plays Scrooge with a humorous air. His Scrooge is more an old grouch than an embittered lost soul. The interpretation has its share of delights, especially when Scrooge cavorts across the stage as he remembers some happy times of his youth and later as he feels as “giddy as a drunken man” after his reclamation.

Other cast members successfully play multiple roles. Claus Evans stands out as a jolly Ghost of Christmas Present and an equally jolly Fezziwig, young Scrooge’s benevolent employer. Morgan does double duty as he gives a spirited and delightfully hammy performance as the ghost of Jacob Marley whose visit to Scrooge kicks off the reclamation effort.

One of the best parts of the show is the original music by Sue Peters and Ken Martinak, with lyrics by Laura Cunningham.

In other words, A Christmas Carol succeeds on its own terms as a lively, candy-coated Christmas pageant. Its place in our holiday traditions make it a part of our Christmas fabric.

A Christmas Carol will be performed at the Cider Mill Stage, 2 S. Nanticoke Ave., Endicott, through Dec. 23. According to a Facebook post today (Dec. 18), the run is sold out, but you can double-check by going online to clocktowertheater.thundertix.com or calling 607-778-9617.

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