As a 7-year-old, the actor Charles Bernard Murray did not really believe in Santa Claus. He knew his single mom was trying to make ends meet, and yet he still asked for over a dozen presents for the holidays. That Christmas morning as he went downstairs to collect his gifts, he discovered not a dozen packages, but one. As he unwrapped it and found the spaceman action figure hidden underneath, he looked at his mom’s face filled with hope.
“At that moment, I decided I would act like this was the most important thing in my life,” he told me over the phone, and then “I saw her face light up. It was the perfect Christmas.” Murray’s kindness is the antithesis of the infamous Ebenezer Scrooge, whom he is playing in “A Christmas Carol in Harlem” (Dec. 4 to 21), in which the greedy businessman is transformed into a modern-day real estate mogul.
“In our version, he’s basically a slumlord unaware of the pain of others,” explained the director Carl Cofield, who, as the artistic director of The Classical Theatre of Harlem, has made sure the gift of theater is accessible to members of his community. Mr. Cofield believes that when images on stage resonate with his audiences, they can have a profound, lasting effect. “We are a community service organization at heart, so community is invaluable to what we create,” he said. “Audience members are our partners as we build and tell these stories.”
For the musical director and the portrayer of the Ghost of Christmas Future, Khalil X Daniel, who wrote an R&B-infused score for the production, Christmas is all about the present. “It’s about the love that you have right there with your family and loved ones,” he said.
Growing up, Mr. Daniel fell in love with Charles Dickens’ tale of change and forgiveness after watching “The Muppet Christmas Carol,” in which the legendary Michael Caine played Scrooge. About 80 blocks south of Harlem, at the Lyceum Theatre, the actor Hannah Elless, who is in a Broadway production of “A Christmas Carol,” (running through Jan. 5) told me, “I grew up with ‘The Muppets’ version.”
“We are a community service organization at heart, so community is invaluable to what we create."
In fact, after being cast as Scrooge’s niece, she and fellow cast members rewatched the classic to get in the spirit. “We had pictures of our characters and held them side by side to the Muppets,” she said, laughing. “I was like, ‘Ooh, that’s who I’m playing!’”
In the Broadway production, Scrooge is played by Campbell Scott, the son of Oscar-winning legend George C. Scott, who once played the stonehearted character in a beloved television production. “Campbell leads us with such grace and humor,” said Ms. Elless. “He is the perfect Scrooge, and I mean that in the best sense.”
Although this production is more traditional, its message is relevant for a time in which society is questioning the lack of generosity from the super rich. Directed by Matthew Warchus, the Broadway version takes this democratic approach to exciting levels rarely seen on Broadway.
Before the show begins, cast members mingle with the audience and hand out clementines and cookies. For the actor Brandon Gill, who plays Scrooge’s nephew Fred, this means, “We build a quick rapport with them, so when they watch the show they go, ‘Oh, I kind of know something about this guy.’”
Since Broadway ticket prices can be so expensive for seats closer to the stage, the production also ensures that action occurs at every level of the theater. “I love that one of my scenes happens in the balcony,” said Mr. Gill. “Up in the balcony sometimes you feel ignored ’cause all of the action is sort of looking at the orchestra.”
If you are in New York, you will not be lacking for versions of “A Christmas Carol.” At Theatre for a New City, you can enjoy a syncretic version called “A Christmas Carol, Oy! Hanukkah, Merry Kwanzaa” (Dec. 19 to Jan. 5), in which Dickens’ characters are portrayed by centuries-old marionettes from the Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre. And you can catch Sir Patrick Stewart doing a one-man production of “A Christmas Carol” in which he gives life to all the characters.
Then there is one production in which ticket sales benefit those creating more art. At Primary Stages’ star-studded reading of the Dickens classic, the playwright and actor Kate Hamill (who thinks the Muppets’ version is “the best adaptation of all time”) will join Tyne Daly and Sharon Washington, under the direction of Theresa Rebeck, to breathe new life into the story.
Ms. Hamill is known for her insightful adaptations of “Pride and Prejudice” and “Vanity Fair.” She once wrote her own “Carol” adaptation called “Scrooge for Senate,” which led her to discover Dickens’ own Scrooge-like past. “He was a middle-aged man, and he tried to get his wife locked away in the lunatic asylum so he could marry his mistress,” she told me. “Talk about a struggle between the artists and the art.”
Hamill’s own adaptation of “Dracula,” which premieres next year at Classic Stage Company, takes a page from Dickens’ life. “It’s set in a lunatic asylum,” said Ms. Hamill, and it will explore vampirism as a form of toxic masculinity. “The basic premise of mine is like, can you ever really trust a man?” she added.
With the holidays approaching, Ms. Hamill wondered what being visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past would be like. “It’d be like a live-action of ‘Our Town’ to go back to your life,” she said. “But I also think it’s the ghost that gives Scrooge the most perspective,” she added. Today, what better gift for all of us than to learn from the past to ensure a better future?