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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Forum premiere adds original music to ‘A Christmas Carol’

By Bob Curtright
Eagle correspondent

“If I had known that I’d be playing Scrooge, then I wouldn’t have written such demanding songs,” jokes composer/lyricist Paul Jackson about a new musical version of Dickens’ beloved “A Christmas Carol” that premieres this holiday season at Wichita’s new Forum Theatre for Performing Arts.

But Forum artistic director Kathryn Page Hauptman, who commissioned the work to become an annual family tradition, kept coming back to Jackson during the casting process.

“Paul knew the music. He knew the story and the character. He’s been a tenor soloist at his church for years, and I’ve worked with him before for the American premiere of ‘Children of Eden’ and the world premiere of ‘Jane Eyre.’ We have developed a sort of shorthand in working together,” says Hauptman, who will direct the new musical. “We looked around and said, ‘Who better to do Scrooge?’ ”

Jackson, who wrote 13 songs for the show, collaborated with writer Conrad Jestmore for “Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol: A Spirited New Musical,” which opens Thursday and runs through Dec. 18. They created a compact, nonstop, 90-minute version of Dickens’ 19th-century tale of greed, miserliness, regret and redemption.

While Derby native Jackson studied theater at Southwestern College in Winfield and counts this as his fifth original show, he insists that music is his avocation rather than his vocation.

“I got my master’s in education and taught in vo-tech for a long time,” says Jackson, currently dean of ITT Technical Institute in Wichita. “I’m an educator. Music is just something that I love. I perform whenever I can, and I’m fortunate to have so many theater outlets in Wichita.”

For Jestmore, who went back to the original 1843 Dickens novel to ensure fidelity to the story, writing the book of the show is a retirement outlet after 34 years of teaching English, theater, debate and forensics in numerous local and area schools, including for the acclaimed IB program at Wichita East High School.

“I’ve always been a writer. But when I retired about four years ago, I was able to dedicate myself to writing,” says Jestmore, whose mystery, “River of Murder,” came out in June.

The key to this new version of “A Christmas Carol,” Jestmore says, is to show the gradual transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge during his magical and scary Christmas Eve of ghostly visits.

“The novel has a flow and an arc to it. We need to actually see his character development. We need to see the humanity creep in through regret and revelation,” Jestmore says. “In other versions, he seems to be instantly transformed. We want the audience to experience his emotional progress.”

The decision to run the show without an intermission came to preserve the “beautiful fluidity” and prevent blunting escalating dramatic mood, Hauptman says.

There are no attempts to update the story or the era or to throw in current references.

“At one time, we considered resetting it in 1930s, Depression-era Wichita to show how universal and timeless this tale can be,” Jestmore says. “But (director) Kathy reminded us that audiences have certain expectations for ‘A Christmas Carol’ that we didn’t want to mess with. We kept faithful to the original novel.”

Supporting Jackson as Scrooge are Craig Green as Bob Cratchit and Rob Summers as Jacob Marley. Cary Hesse-Clark is the Ghost of Christmas Past, and Karla Burns is the jovial Ghost of Christmas Present. Aidan Martin plays Tiny Tim.

A unique take on the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come involves several actors.

Tim Raymond is musical director for a five-piece ensemble of keyboard, harp, cello, violin and reed, and Burns is the vocal coach. Set is by Ben Juhnke, lights by Tyler Lessin, sound by Nick Smith and costumes by Chad Armstrong.

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