Scrooge is transformed, uplifting all
The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer
Beseeching: Ebenezer Scrooge, played by Richard Bartley, wears a nightshirt as, on Christmas Eve, while he sleeps, he is visited by spirits who lead him to see his past and change his future. The classic Dickensian Christmas tale takes musical form in Bah, Humbug! on the Berne-Knox-Westerlo stage this weekend.
BERNE — Charles Dickens wrote a Christmas story of his times — Victorian England — that resonates this week in the Hilltowns.
“The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means,” said William Faulkner, “and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life.”
“Bah, Humbug!” Scrooge’s Christmas Carol is a musical that tells the now-familiar story of a miserly old man, Ebenezer Scrooge, who is transformed one Christmas Eve as he is visited by a series of spirits that show him his past life, his present life, and what his future life will be if he doesn’t change his stingy ways.
Season Poole, a vibrant mother of three, said, before she got a part in the Hilltowns Players’ production, her acquaintance with the story was, literally, “the Mickey Mouse version.”
The last time she was on stage was as a Berne-Knox-Westerlo senior. She decided it would be something fun for her to do with the eldest of her children, 7-year-old Ruby. They play a mother and daughter on stage, street waifs, and have loved the singing and dancing.
Poole’s younger children, ages 5 and 2, want to be on stage now, too. “They know all the songs by heart,” said their mother.
Another Hilltown family, the Lefkaditises, has both parents and four out of five children on stage. The father, Vasilios, gives a rousing rendition of Jacob Marley’s Ghost — the spirit of Scrooge’s now-dead business partner who was also stingy — and who comes back to haunt Scrooge. Lefkaditis rattles his chains and sings as if to wake the dead.
His real-life wife, Anna, plays the Spirit of Christmas Past. In a Grecian white gown and long white hair, she glides elegantly about the stage, gently guiding Scrooge through his childhood memories.
Richard Bartley, the veteran actor who plays Scrooge, recalled how nervous Mrs. Lefkaditis was when he handed out the scripts. “She had never been on stage and said, ‘I can’t talk in front of people,” he recalled. “I said, ‘Just give it two weeks of rehearsal…It’ll come to you.’ She is having a ball and doing a great job in the role.”
Bartley also recalled how Director Penny Shaw answered when Mrs. Lefkaditis asked, “How should I play this?”
“Be a mother,” Shaw replied.
The Spirit of Christmas Past looks like a mother as she tucks the weary Scrooge back in bed on Christmas Eve and lifts her forefinger to her lips to signify silence.
Mrs. Lefkaditis’s real-life children people the stage with brown-eyed charm. Nine-year-old Stavros Lefkaditis plays the part of Tiny Tim. “He’s pretty poor,” says the actor of the character he plays. “He is the son of Bob Crachit, Scrooge’s employee.”
As a sickly, crippled boy, Tiny Tim becomes a focal point for Scrooge in understanding the effects of his stinginess. “I have to walk like this,” said Stavros, illustrating the halting gait he adopts on stage as he leans on a hand-hewn crutch. “It’s actually pretty hard.”
He goes on matter-of-factly, “I die later in the show,” referring to the vision Scrooge has when led by the Spirit of Christmas Future.
Stavros has a concise and honest answer for why he likes being on stage, “I really just like attention.”
His actual sister, Vasiliki, 11, plays his sister in the Crachit family, Virginia. “It’s a lot of fun getting to perform with my family,” said Vasiliki, who likes riding horses and hopes to be a veterinarian.
Their real-life 7-year-old sister, Antonina, who plays a street urchin and goblin, enjoys acting a lot, she said, explaining, “I like moving around.”
Aggelos Lefkaditis, who is 5, also plays a street urchin and goblin. His favorite part? “I get to fall off a coffin and my dad catches me.” This is when the street waifs are quite literally dancing on Scrooge’s grave in his vision of the future.
Two sets of twins are also part of the play. BKW sophomores Jared and John Lussier, known for their harmonies, take on several different roles with aplomb.
And BKW juniors, twins Kyle and Tyler Anderson, are also involved — Kyle plays Scrooge as a young man and Tyler has been busy with the stage crew. Kyle hopes to go to the Air Force Academy, where he wants to major in aeronautical engineering, to become a pilot and Tyler — who likes to study history, especially medieval battles — wants to join the Navy or Coast Guard after college.
Aside from following a family tradition of military service, the twins are also part of an Osterhout family tradition of being involved in Hilltowns Players productions. Their mother, Amy Anderson, has multiple roles in Bah, Humbug!, including the Spirit of Christmas Future, and their aunt, Teri Osterhout-Paton plays the Spirit of Christmas Present with great verve, raising the level of intensity with her chutzpa, and belting out her songs.
“I’m the jolly one,” she said of her role. Growing up, she said, her sister did the acting and she did the singing. But, when she got a major part, she discovered she liked acting.
Her father, Will Osterhout, a Hilltown thespian himself, would practice her lines with her. Although he’s no longer able to be on stage, he’s sure to be in the audience, his daughters said.
They fondly recalled family car trips in their youth where the whole family sang together. “It was their way of controlling four kids,” quipped Osterhout-Paton.
And that tradition continues, too. “We sang all the way to the Thousand Islands,” said Kyle Anderson.
Another family connection is the husband-and-wife acting team, Bob and Donna Ferraino. A BKW bus driver, Mrs. Ferraino plays an adoring wife to Bob Crachit. Mr. Ferraino, a mechanic, plays Scrooge’s nephew whose beaming demeanor radiates warmth and good will. He filled in just before last year’s show when an actor had to leave to help Hurricane Sandy survivors. “He was a natural,” said Shaw.
Another family group is father Jeff VanIderstine and his daughters, Stephanie and Tiffany. Mr. VanIderstine plays the ever-enduring Bob Crachit with an endearing humbleness.
Stephanie, a senior at BKW, is, like her father, a long-time member of the Hilltowns Players. She has the role of Belle, the long-ago girlfriend of Scrooge, who returns her engagement ring because he has come to value money over her.
Tiffany Stuart, also a BKW senior, has her first acting role, as Fanny, Scrooge’s loving sister who died young. “She knocked the socks off the audition committee,” said Bartley.
He considers the duet he has with her the show’s prettiest song. They sing “One Last Christmas” as Scrooge visits his past and remembers Fanny’s sweet love. Fanny’s red hair is pulled back from a face dominated by soulful eyes. “It’s a heart-tugging song,” said Bartley.
Not all the inter-generational connections in the show are familial. The small pit orchestra — Gerald Irwin on electric bass, Alyce Gibbs on electric keyboard, and Vincent Smith on piano — is led by Stacey Wright, the play’s music director. Wright was Smith’s student before he retired from teaching music at BKW in 1999. Over the years, Smith said, he has watched many of his students perform in the musicals.
“It’s challenging,” said Irwin of the three-piece ensemble providing all of the play’s music. “I love music,” he added, explaining why he takes on the challenge.
“This is what we do,” said Wright, making her debut as music director.
“Some people build model airplanes, some people go boating,” agreed Smith. “This is what we are born to do.”
“But it’s Scrooge”
Bartley, the show’s lead, looks as though he was born to act but said he came to it late in life. He was in the chorus for Kiss Me, Kate in 1968, the year he graduated from high school. He went on to join the Air Force — and was in the reserves after active duty — eventually returning to Clarksville, purchasing his childhood home, and working in the plumbing and electrical business that had been started by his father.
He retired after 36 years of military service and now lives and works at Camp Pinnacle.
After doing some theatrics at the Westerlo Baptist Church, Bartley was in a play Shaw wrote, Hand In Hand.
“That gave me the bug,” he said.
Shaw said Bartley is the perfect fit for the part of Scrooge. “He has the looks — rugged, weathered, handsome — and the age and the voice,” she said. Bartley is 63 and says he’s a “confirmed bass,” adding, “I used to sing tenor.”
And, he loves acting.
“I find it interesting and exciting to take a piece of paper with words on it and turn them into flesh-and-blood interaction on stage,” said Bartley. “When you pull it off, it’s very gratifying. When you have people in front of you that respond, that is doubly gratifying.”
He calls the part of Scrooge “one of those iconic roles” — a role he couldn’t resist.
“I was really torn. I have a lot of stuff going on,” Bartley said. This thought, though, kept returning to him: “But it’s Scrooge.”
He was also aware of the role’s long stage history and many adaptations. “It’s been done so many times by so many people, I thought, ‘Gee willikers, I can’t match that.’ So I do it the way we see it.”
From the opening scene, Bartley sets the tone. Scrooge is seated on a park bench, reading his newspaper when a crowd of street waifs surrounds him. He beats them off.
“He starts out as a gruff, grumpy tightwad, biting everyone’s head off,” says Bartley of his character. “That’s fun — everybody wants to do it. In the course of the play, he’s broken down and redeemed and rejuvenated as someone who is happy and generous, wonderful and caring. It’s a great range.”
And Bartley hits every note in that range — ending with a boyish giddiness that verges on the insane.
“Aspects of it are very touching,” Bartley said of the play, revealing, “I do battle with myself not to be blubbering on stage.”
Bartley — a father of three grown children and a grandfather of three young children — describes one scene where he has to fight off his tears. As a homeless child stands on either side of him, Bartley says, “You have a couple of little brown-eyed waifs looking up at you.”
He recommends audience members bring handkerchiefs with them “both to laugh into and to snort in.”
“Extended dysfunctional family”
As Shaw put her cast through their paces this week, the fondness among the players was palpable. A real-life mother kissed her child off stage while a stage mother hugged her pretend child.
A nursery-school teacher, a mechanic, a chef, a student, a plumber, a bus driver all set aside their real-life roles in order to become something different, to make a new reality.
“We don’t take ourselves real seriously,” said Bartley. “That helps us all enjoy it…We encourage each other to do the best job we can without being a prima donna.”
He especially likes watching and helping first-time actors stretch themselves and grow. And acting with those he’s worked with before, Bartley said, “You almost know what the person will do before they do it.”
He concluded, “We’re very much a full extended dysfunctional family.”
Shaw, who starred in the Hilltowns Players’ first show in 1982 and has been involved ever since, talked about a recent rehearsal after a rough day of work. The first run-through dragged on for two hours.
So Shaw shared with the group the two reasons why she keeps at it. “One, I feel every year, at least one, or more, will come out and really need to build up confidence, to feel like part of a family, to get away from whatever’s wrong in their life. This picks them up and brings them together.
“And two, it’s the same with the audience, even if there’s a small turnout…At least one person is having a rough time. Someone needs to pick them up and show them they can smile and there is still laughter and moments in the world that can balance things out.
Shaw told her cast that day, “All right, guys, we can do this.” They chiseled the performance to 45 minutes.
Afterwards, Shaw asked, “How do you feel?”
A cheer went up.
“Bah, Humbug!” Scrooge’s Christmas Carol, with book by Rebecca Ryland and music and lyrics by Bill Francoeur, will play at the Berne-Knox-Westerlo auditorium on Helderberg Trail in Berne on Nov. 15 and 16 at 7:30 p.m., and on Nov. 17 at 3 p.m.
General admission is $10. Tickets, sold at the door, are $7 for patrons over 55, for children up to age 17, and for veterans and those serving in the military.