hgazette.com, Haverhill, MA

December 10, 2012

'Christmas Carol' takes to the airwaves - on stage

By Margot LeSage Regan

---- — HAVERHILL -- A group of actors files into a 1950s radio station for their annual production of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” Just before they go on air, however, the wife of famous actor Gregory Butler -- slated to portray Scrooge -- enters and informs the cast her husband can’t make it.

Panic, of course, ensues. What to do without this critical lead character? And then someone questions, “Who says Scrooge has to be a man?”

Ebenita Scrooge is born, and that’s who audiences will meet in the Spotlight Playhouse’s latest production, “A Christmas Carol, a Live Radio Play.”

An original production, this play-within-a-play is directed by Kevin Wilson of North Andover. It’s performed as if it were a radio broadcast, using the 2012 audience as the 1950’s radio production studio audience. The set is a radio studio, rather than Victorian-era England.

The show includes the occasional commercial break, as well as a table full of sound effects much like those present in radio stations back when Bob Hope and Jack Benny took to the airwaves.

“The thought of doing a radio show is twofold,” Wilson said. “This type of show takes slightly less effort, which for our actors is good as during Christmastime. Everyone is busy. And two, it is also a fun challenge. When actors step on stage to portray a character, there are so many tools they can use … mannerisms. … But a radio show strips that away and they only have their voice to work with.”

The show opens Nov. 30 at Riverside Memorial Church on Groveland Street with additional performances on Dec. 1, 7, 8 and 9.

This is the fourth year Spotlight Playhouse has performed a Christmas-themed show as a radio production. Past productions have included “Miracle on 34th Street” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Wilson adapted this play from Orson Welles’ radio version of “A Christmas Carol.” He said he always wanted to explore the idea of a female Scrooge.

“Everyone has seen it over and over again, so you have to keep it fresh and not bore the audience,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons why I wrote a female Scrooge.”

Elinor Curtin Cameron of Haverhill plays Ebenita Scrooge. A former English and theater teacher at Haverhill High School, Curtin Cameron said she tried out for the role of Mrs. Fezziwig and was shocked when Wilson called to ask her if she would take the part of Scrooge.

“My first thought was that I hope they have a good costume and make-up artist,” Curtin Cameron laughed.

She said it has been great fun mastering the art of acting out a radio production and such a famous character.

“You are creating a character with your voice,” Curtin Cameron said, noting that there was a time when radio stories were many people’s only form of entertainment. “Your facial expressions have to carry over into your voice.”

Spotlight Playhouse was born four years ago when some local actors got together once a month to read plays and have dinner. The group, which became known as the Haverhill Dramatic Reading Association, decided that Haverhill needed a small, community theater company.

Soon Spotlight Playhouse was founded, bringing the community another option for affordable, quality theater in the Merrimack Valley.

This small group of dedicated actors does everything from painting the set, to making sure the props and costumes are ready, to moving the actual set and props from their Essex Street rehearsal space to their shows’ locations.

Rich O’Shay of Haverhill is in charge of the sound effects for “A Christmas Carol.”

“You have to suspend your disbelief,” said O’Shay as he organized his tools on the table. Spencer Zbitnoff, 9, of Haverhill and his father, Sasha Zbitnoff, play Peter and Bob Cratchit. The pair said they are excited about acting in their first play together. Sasha Zbitnoff performed in Spotlight Playhouse’s spring production of “Titanic.”

“He’s doing fantastic,” said Sasha Zbitnoff about his son. “This is a wonderful group of people to work with.”

Spencer Zbitnoff agreed. He said since he has seen many different versions of “A Christmas Carol” he can picture how each scene should look, which helps him with his role.

So, with so many versions of “A Christmas Carol” being presented during the holiday season, why see this one?

“Well, you have probably never seen a female Scrooge. And you probably have never seen or heard a presentation that solely relies on vocal abilities. It forces you to use your imagination,” said Curtin Cameron.

“It’s set up like an old-time radio show: What could be more fun than that?” added Louise Dolan of Haverhill. Dolan plays the producer of the radio show. “It’s just been a very fun and exciting experience.”

“There is a beauty in local, community, theater and the sense of celebrating Christmas as a community,” said Wilson.

IF YOU GO: What: Spotlight Playhouse's "A Christmas Carol, a Live Radio Play." When: Dec.7 and 8 at 8 p.m. and Dec. 9 at 2 p.m. Where: Riverside Memorial Church, 278 Groveland St., Haverhill. How: Tickets are $15/$13 for seniors and members. For tickets or more information, call 978-380-8509 or email tickets@spotlightplayhouse.org or visit www.spotlightplayhouse.org. Reservations are recommended and doors open 30 minutes prior to each performance.