A Christmas Carol—A Ghost Story of Christmas
Nov 25–Dec 24 (Previews start Nov 21). $25–80. Wortham Theatre, University of Houston, 4800 Calhoun Rd. 713-220-5700. alleytheatre.org
Dickens on the Strand
Dec 5–7. $12 in advance; $14 at gate. Some events require separate tickets. 2300 Strand St., Galveston. 409-765-7834. galvestonhistory.org
A Christmas Carol
Dec 5–21. $30–100. Cullen Theater, Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas Ave. 713-228-6737. houstongrandopera.org
In September 1843, Charles Dickens was in the middle of writing his sixth novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, when the inspiration struck for a ghost story about Christmas. Published as a gift book in December of that year, A Christmas Carol immediately sold out its first printing, going on to become Dickens’s most famous literary work. “It was instantly popular,” says Logan Browning, an English professor at Rice University who teaches Victorian literature. “It kept coming out in edition after edition, reprinting after reprinting.” In the 171 years since its publication, A Christmas Carol has never been out of print.
The story’s dramatic potential was quickly understood—just a year after its publication there were already a half-dozen theatrical productions. Since then, of course, there have been hundreds, if not thousands, of adaptations of the Carol by everyone from Bill Murray to the Muppets. In Houston, the Alley Theatre has been staging one version or another at Christmastime every year since 1989. (The current production, adapted and originally directed by Michael Wilson, debuted in 2005 and will be staged at UH’s Wortham Theatre because of renovations at the Alley’s downtown home.)
This year, however, the Alley will have competition from the Houston Grand Opera, which is producing a world premiere opera based on Dickens’s story. With music by young English composer Iain Bell and a libretto by veteran actor Simon Callow, the one-man opera will be sung by rising star (and Paris, Texas native) Jay Hunter Morris. “The piece deals with nothing less than redemption,” Callow says. “A soul is saved, a life transformed, the atrophying and calcifying action of unmediated capitalism reversed.…It is the Dickensian vision in a nutshell.” The opera comes with an official age recommendation of 12 and up, so expect a version of the ghost story that may actually be, you know, spooky.
Galveston’s annual Dickens on the Strand festival is of even older vintage than the Alley’s Christmas Carol, dating back to 1974, when Evangeline Whorton, a member of the Galveston Historical Foundation, attended a similar event in San Francisco and decided that the island city, which boasted plenty of its own Victorian buildings, needed a Dickens-related attraction of its own. “She said, ‘Man, we’ve got [Victorian architecture] in Galveston—we could do that here!’” recalled Dwayne Jones, the Galveston Historical Foundation’s current executive director.
As in the past, this year’s three-day festival brings 19th-century London to life with oil lamps, Victorian costumes, carolers, a few beggars, and something called Fezziwig’s Beer Hall (named after a minor character in Carol), all presided over by two of Dickens’s actual descendants, live and in the flesh, flown directly from England for the occasion.
Okay, we get it—people really, really like A Christmas Carol. But surely seeing it performed year after year can make even the Fezziest of Wigs want to say “Bah! Humbug!” Right? Not according to Alley company member James Black, who has either acted in or directed every production since the beginning.
“When you mount a yearly production of A Christmas Carol, it can be like a microcosm of the story itself,” Black says. “Like Scrooge, you roll your eyes and say, ‘I can’t believe we’re doing this again.’ Then something seems to happen as you hear those words spoken aloud again, and the production elements come together, and, most importantly, you perform it for an audience for the first time. You’re reminded that there’s magic and truth, and most, importantly, there’s hope in the story. Life keeps it fresh.”