Tim Hartman figures he has spent the equivalent of four years on stage in productions of "A Christmas Carol."
Jeff Howell has played Bob Cratchit in all but three of Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera's 22 productions of the Charles Dickens classic, and Terry Wickline has played the twin roles of Mrs. Fezziwig and Scrooge's housekeeper, Mrs. Dilbert, every year since joining the cast in 2000.
All three will be back on stage this year when Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera opens its 22nd production of "A Musical Christmas Carol," which runs Dec. 6 to 22 at the Byham Theater, Downtown.
"To be honest, it's the message. ... I like that there is hope in the show that people in the audience can change their life," says Hartman, who has spent 21 of the past 22 Decembers appearing in "A Christmas Carol" -- 18 with Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera and three at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. The only year he missed was 2009, while he was on Broadway in "Finian's Rainbow."
"I just enjoy the material because it's so rich. You can always find something new (in it)," says Howell, who plays Bob Cratchit.
The story of Ebenezer Scrooge and the three spirits who conduct him on his journey to spiritual redemption remains dependable and familiar. And most of the production's scenery and props may stay the same from year to year, along with some of the actors.
Tom Atkins will make his sixth appearance as Scrooge. Amanda Serra will revisit her roles as Ghost of Christmas Past, Peg and Charity Worker. Eight-year-old Simon Negan will have his second chance to play Tiny Tim.
But each production also gets new performers who stir things up by bringing their own skills and personalities to time-tested characters.
"We have a new Young Scrooge (Patrick Cannon) and a new Dick Wilkins (Garrett Storm) this year," Howell says. "The way you said your line before is not going to get the same response back."
For some, like Hartman and Wickline, who have spent multiple seasons playing opposite each other as Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig, a certain synergy can develop that bubbles up in the show's most joyful and fun scene -- the Fezziwig's Christmas party, Wickline says.
Hartman takes joy in never giving the same performance twice.
"I change lines and gags from show to show. It's fun. People are surprised by that," Hartman says.
He finds it a struggle to tone down his comic bits, particularly when the audience encourages him not to.
"Every year, I say 'Calm yourself down ... Don't get crazy.' But I get the sillies. The audience starts laughing and I get a little broader."
Returning actors also refresh their roles by taking a new look at their characters.
"As an actor, you have to find something that makes the character new to (you): the tiny thing you have learned about that person that keeps it new, even if only you (the actor) knows it," Wickline says.
Knowing audiences look forward to "A Musical Christmas Carol" also inspires Wickline.
"So many families have created this as a tradition. They continue to bring the kids, even the next generation," Wickline says. "It's something the whole family can enjoy together. ... It's a privilege to be part of that."
Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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