Four years ago, Eugene holiday lovers had a choice of seeing — count them — five different versions of the Charles Dickens classic A Christmas Carol performed as the holiday season approached.
Oregon Contemporary Theatre (OCT) did it straight up as a ghost story. Actors Cabaret, naturally, did it as a musical. Roving Park players mounted their own smaller stage production, Eugene Concert Choir sang “A Dickens of a Christmas” for its holiday show and Ballet Fantastique danced An American Christmas Carol, featuring music from singer Halie Loren.
Those were the days when theater companies across the country were looking for that perfect holiday feel-good show that would reliably pack in paying audiences — and increase ticket revenue — the way The Nutcracker has supported ballet companies around the U.S. since San Francisco Ballet began performing it annually in 1944.
A Christmas Carol seemed just the ticket.
Well, it looks like the bottom has dropped out for Scrooge and Marley.
2019 brings nothing but humbug to local fans of Tiny Tim and the whole Cratchit family. Not a single production of A Christmas Carol can be seen in Eugene this year, if you don’t count the ultra-compressed five-minute version that will grace Radio Redux’s holiday revue in December.
If you want to see the unabridged ghosts of Christmases past, present and future frightening Scrooge and dragging chains around the stage, you’ll have to head for Portland and beyond.
What happened? We asked a few Eugene-area theater directors to explain how the show went from gold to old.
“I love A Christmas Carol,” says Fred Crafts, founder and executive director of Radio Redux. “I can’t get enough of it!”
Crafts, whose company performs live readings of radio plays as if the audience were there in the broadcast studio, started doing the show in 2003 — mostly the 1940s-vintage radio version that starred Lionel Barrymore, but also parodies, including a Western version, Scrooge in Love, that he wrote himself. And the company kept doing the show again and again.
“In truth, Radio Redux has feasted on A Christmas Carol over the years,” he says.
The end came, he says, because it was too much of a good thing. “Not long ago this market was saturated by production after production,” Crafts says.
In place of Christmas Carol, Radio Redux has turned to such cheery shows as It’s a Wonderful Life, which it did from 2011-13; Miracle on 34th Street, 2015; The Shop Around the Corner, 2017; and an original revue, A Cowboy Christmas, in 2016 and 2018.
OCT has mounted only a couple productions of the Dickens classic, Producing Artistic Director Craig Willis says. OCT offered a kids’ version in 2003, and the theater did an original version directed and adapted by Elizabeth Helman that ran for two consecutive seasons about five years ago.
“It’s a big undertaking, and despite the suspicion that it’s some kind of cash cow, locally there is enough holiday entertainment to choose from,” Willis says. “It’s a competitive time of year, and really it isn’t the economic boon that some might expect.”
The Shedd Institute is about the only theater venue in town that has given Dickens a pass. Jim Ralph, executive director at The Shedd, says that’s for a couple reasons. “It is modern, and The Shedd pretty much does classical musical theater,” Ralph says. “And, everybody has always done it. So I guess we’ve always thought there was just too much Tiny Tim around for comfort as it was.”
But Ralph says he’s been tempted.
“If A Christmas Carol was less like a Hallmark card and a bit more like a Marx Brothers movie, I’d categorize it as a classic musical comedy,” he says. “And, as I always say, if we all lived in a musical comedy, the world would be a much better place.”
If you’re determined to see Scrooge and the gang, you can find several productions in Portland and elsewhere.
Stumptown Stages is offering A Christmas Carol: the Musical at Portland’s Dolores Winningstad Theatre Dec. 5-22.
Farther out of town, A Contemporary Theatre in Seattle and American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco are both mounting productions this season. Even farther away, the mother of all Christmas Carols is still running — as it has now for 45 years — at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The show is up this season Nov. 12 through Dec. 29.
Meanwhile, here are our picks for the most-tantalizing holiday shows you can see without actually leaving Lane County:
• Eugene Concert Choir, with soloists Darline Jackson and Calvin Orlando Smith, will perform excerpts from Handel’s Messiah and the Bach Christmas Oratorio, along with holiday carols, 2:30 pm Sunday, Dec. 15, at the Hult Center. Expect to be invited to join in a “Hallelujah Chorus” singalong. Tickets and more info at EugeneConcertChoir.org.
• You won’t necessarily hear Christmas carols, but Oregon Mozart Players’s annual Candlelight Concert at First Christian Church is one of the coziest of holiday experiences. This year’s program, performed at 7:30 pm Friday and Saturday, Dec. 6-7, includes work by Antonio Vivaldi, J.S. Bach and Frederik Magle. Tickets and more info at OregonMozartPlayers.org.
• For an edgier holiday experience, check out Tammie Brown, the star of RuPaul’s Drag Race, offering “Holiday Sparkle” at Spectrum on Saturday, Dec. 21. Doors open 8 pm, show at 9 pm, tickets $22-$32 at JustinBucklesProductions.com.
• It’s not exactly a holiday show, but nobody does Christmas quite like Actors Cabaret of Eugene, whose holiday offering this year is Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Spring for dinner tickets and soak up the wonderfully over-the-top atmosphere along with excellent food and family-style seating, which means you’ll be making new friends. Tickets and info at ActorsCabaret.org.
• The Radio Redux Christmas Special features holiday songs and seasonal stories — not to mention that five-minute Christmas Carol — Dec. 20-22 at the Hult Center. See RadioRedux.com for tickets and more info.
• One of our favorite out-of-town holiday shows is the annual Christmas Opry on the Bay at Liberty Theatre in North Bend, the small town next to Coos Bay. Local talent, a great old theater building and plenty of heart make this a fine show. Dec. 7-9; see TheLibertyTheatre.org for tickets and info.
• And, of course, Eugene Ballet performs The Nutcracker — which, unlike Christmas Carol, still makes money — at 7:30 pm Friday and Saturday, Dec. 20-21, and at 2 pm Saturday and Sunday Dec. 21-22, at the Hult Center. Tickets and more info at EugeneBallet.com.
• Finally, what holiday season would be complete without a Gingerbread Workshop like the one being given at the Cottage Events Venue in Cottage Grove on various dates in November and December. For $30 you can decorate your choice of a premade, freshly baked gingerbread building. For full details, see cottageevents.com.