The injustices and abuses of the industrial revolution were much on Charles Dickens’s mind when he published his antipoverty parable, A Christmas Carol, back in 1843. Little did he know, though, that the adventures of Ebenezer Scrooge and the Cratchit family would spark an industry of their own. To date, his novella has been the source of several screenplays, a mime production starring Marcel Marceau, a Benjamin Britten score for chamber orchestra, a Broadway musical with an all-black cast, and various aspects of Dickens World, a $120-million theme park on the Thames that opened in 2007. Some historians also credit the book’s tear-jerking plot with inspiring the rise of charitable giving, once purely the province of the church and the nobility, in Victorian England.
That’s a lot to live up to, but the cast and crew of The Christmas Carol Project are doing their best to continue in the spirit of that first Dickensian Yule. An Edmonton fixture since 1996, this folk-music retelling of the original tale—which comes to the Cultch this weekend—is both a kind of family reunion for the cream of that city’s singer-songwriter scene and a chance to remind audiences that even during this festive season, there are others in need.
“I’ve always thought of it as a social-justice story,” says Maria Dunn, sounding somewhat breathless as she picks up the phone in the Alberta capital. The singer, guitarist, and accordion player takes on the role of Tiny Tim in the production, as well as that of a step-dancing maid, but she’s not been practising her clogging; instead, she’s just finished moving into new digs. Still, she’s happy to outline exactly why Dickens’s spooky morality tale still matters in this post-industrial age.
“There’s the worker, Bob Cratchit, who obviously works hard at what he does yet can’t even support his family or get proper health care for his child, who is suffering and potentially going to die,” she explains. “But the ghosts of Christmas point out to Scrooge that he is connected to that, and that he has a responsibility to others. So, yeah, it absolutely resonates today—and I know that for me, personally, it’s a tremendous way to celebrate this season. As a social-justice story, it reconnects me to the true meaning of what this season is all about.”
Dunn is joined by a cast of nine in The Christmas Carol Project, including songwriter Bill Bourne as Scrooge; guitarist Kevin Cook as the miser’s former partner Jacob Marley; bassist and Chapman Stick virtuoso Dale Ladouceur as the Ghost of Christmas Future; and Tom Roschkov as Bob Cratchit. As the Narrator, Dave Clarke brings a degree of actorly presence to the stage, but Dunn stresses that the Project is a concert, not a musical.
“Dave has some movement and uses some different accents in his narration,” she explains. “There is some costuming that goes on, and some movement around the stage, but the main focus is the music, and making sure that the music sounds good. If we were going to go in a more theatrical direction, then we would be competing with things that definitely are musical theatre—and none of us are actors, so we don’t want to do that!”
The various cast members have all brought songs to the show. Dunn’s contributions include “Scrooge’s Jig”, an uptempo, accordion-led depiction of the penitent miser’s spiritual rebirth on Christmas Day, and “God Bless Us Everyone”, a showcase for Tiny Tim that essentially functions as the show’s feel-good anthem.
“It was a real pleasure to write a song from that perspective,” says Dunn. “But it was challenging, too, because Tiny Tim only actually says one line. ”˜God bless us, every one!’ is all that he says in the whole book—but, obviously, that makes a chorus.”
After immersing herself in Dickens’s text, she ended up basing her verses on a scene in which Bob Cratchit contemplates how others might be moved to compassion by his son’s serene acceptance of fate. And, in keeping with the notion that giving is its own reward, “God Bless Us Everyone” has taken on a life of its own outside of The Christmas Carol Project.
“I often include it as an encore in my own folk-club shows, and other people have told me that that song really resonates with them,” Dunn reports. Its sentiments, then, are as universal as those Dickens himself touched on in his original manuscript—and as long as there is hunger in the land, they’ll remain equally timely.
The Christmas Carol Project runs at the Cultch on Friday and Saturday (December 17 and 18).