Ebenezer Scrooge answers the phone not with exclamations of bah! or humbug! but with a civil "Hello?" Scrooge, in this case, is Robert Spencer, the veteran stage actor cast as the misanthropic miser in the Children's Theater of Madison production of A Christmas Carol. Opening tonight and continuing through next weekend in the Capitol Theater at Overture, this 33rd staging of the Dickens classic by the company marks Spencer's swan song in the tale's pivotal role.
Opening night will see a cameo appearance by Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, heralding a string of guest performances by local radio, TV and business personalities who promise to bring a dash of extra flavor to Romulus Linney's stage adaptation for CTM.
But the seasonal drama hinges on Scrooge. Spencer traces his earliest memories of the character to Reginald Owen starring as the original humbug in the 1938 film version, which also featured Terry Kilburn in the role of Tiny Tim. Kilburn would go on to become artistic director of the Meadow Brook Theatre in Michigan, an early stage home for Spencer. "I worked for him as an actor," he says, savoring the symmetry.
Spencer first played Scrooge in 1979. "This is, I believe, my 12th time doing it," he says. "The rigors of the role are at my limits. My 70-year-old body, it takes a lot to do it emotionally and physically. But I have loved playing this role."
If the character captivated him, Spencer says, the story itself has kept him engaged. "It's a tale of redemption that is just phenomenal to me," he notes, suggesting the power of embodying Scrooge's transformation from selfish to generous. "Even this time, I'm finding new qualities in the character. When characters are so richly written, there's always something new to discover."
In collaboration with Roseann Sheridan, CTM's producing artistic director, Spencer has this year discovered "a little more humor" in Scrooge and found yet more nuance by "using more direct address, where I use the audience as my ally."
The first time he portrayed Scrooge, Spencer notes, he was still in his early 40s. "My own sense of getting older has brought more wisdom to piece and the characterization," he observes. "I'm able to relate to the man more. As an older man, I'm starting to let things go."
Spencer pauses, then elaborates. "I feel I have grown into the part," he says. "When I first tackled the character it was more of an acting exercise in a way, but over the years I feel more comfortable in his skin. Less acting and more me. It's funny, because once I start I don't have to think about the acting. He watches so much and observes so much of his past life, and I just kind of let that work on me."
The part has its compensations. "Sharing the story and getting feedback from the audience at the end of the show, saying happy holidays and feeling that warmth, it's kept me in touch with the spirit of Christmas," Spencer observes. "There have been years when Christmas would come along and I'd get depressed. It becomes a burden to decorate and everything. But somehow, doing this play, it fills me."
Premiering at 7:30 p.m. this Friday, December 12, with Victorian festivities starting at 6:45 p.m., A Christmas Carol enjoys additional performances at 7:30 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through December 21. Tickets cost $15 for kids, students and seniors, and $23-$32 for the rest of the audience. In keeping with the sentiments of the Dickensian classic, patrons are invited to bring non-perishable food donations for Second Harvest Food Bank.