OKC's Lyric Theatre planning outside yuletide with 'A Christmas Carol'
A version of this story appears in the Sunday Life section of The Oklahoman.
Taking the yuletide outside
Lyric Theatre moves its production of 'A Christmas Carol' to Harn Homestead due to pandemic
Michael Baron is feeling a little like Walt Disney these days.
Instead of creating a theme park with immersive rides, though, Lyric Theatre's producing artistic director is working to preserve a yuletide tradition at a turn-of-the-20th-century Oklahoma City historical site. But there will be a "Haunted Mansion" involved.
"It's a little like, 'Oh, come into the Magic Kingdom of "Christmas Carol,"' because once you enter the gates, it's really a fantastic experience," Baron said. "You're like, 'Oh, wow, I'm in a new world.'"
With the lingering coronavirus pandemic continuing to make indoor performances risky, the venerable theater will stage its 10th anniversary production of Charles Dickens' beloved holiday ghost story Wednesday-Dec. 27 at Harn Homestead, a living history museum near the state Capitol.
"What we're doing is exciting regardless of the COVID epidemic. This is going to be fun regardless, and we might continue it in years to come or go back there," Baron said. "It's just a really great way to tell the story. There's so many scenes that when you're in the theater, you have to translate one box to all these places, and now you actually have the places - and more. Now, what's a grove of trees becomes a fantasy Christmas memory."
In September, Lyric was among the first professional theaters in the country to resume live performances by staging the family-friendly "Lyric Kids’ Clubhouse Cabaret" and program-rotating "Lyric’s Moonlight Cabaret" at the Myriad Botanical Gardens' Water Stage.
Both shows were performed without intermission with COVID-19 protocols like strictly limiting capacity, administering temperature checks, enforcing social distancing and requiring masks.
"It was a huge, safe success. We had return audiences come back week after week to see the different shows ... We got to practice and implement the safety protocols before we did a bigger event like 'Christmas Carol,' so that was very helpful. It was just nice to get the actors working again, to hear music and to highlight that theater, which is really great. We're looking to go back there in the spring for some other shows," Baron said.
"As the current state of the pandemic remains as it is, we'll stay outside a little longer."
The same protocols will be in place for Lyric's reimagined "Christmas Carol," a 75-minute production that will have audiences moving with the performers to various historic sites at the Harn Homestead, which includes the 1904 Victorian Harn Home, an event barn and a one-room schoolhouse.
"The goal was not to sort of have the audience go from scene to scene to scene sort of like a pageant but that the story pulls the audience dramatically through the venue - and that's definitely what's happened. ... Christmas Future, when you turn around and there actually is a grave in a graveyard ... it's really powerful and delightful at the same time," Baron said.
"The Harn Homestead already is a really cool, historic park, and the layout is really cozy and concise. So, it allows us to go to lots of different locations in a really short walk for the audience. There's already history there, and the history also translates to Dickens. Even though it's American historical buildings and not British, we're adding enough elements that you'll still think the story in London is still happening."
Since audiences will be limited to 100 attendees per performance - instead of the almost 300 theatergoers who can attend "A Christmas Carol" at Lyric's Plaza Theatre - the company is planning what's believed to be the longest run in its history, with more than 50 shows between early November and late December.
The cast - which includes many local favorites who have starred in Lyric's "A Christmas Carol" every year for the past decade - will be split in two, with Jonathan Beck Reed and W. Jerome Stevenson taking turns playing the lead role of Ebenezer Scrooge.
"It's one of my favorite parts ever written because there's a complete epiphany. ... He starts out as one person, he ends as another person, and the journey changes him," Reed said. "What I particularly like about Scrooge is that he never leaves the stage, and even if he's not speaking, the actor, you have to be 100% invested, because even when you're not speaking you're changing. The events of your life and others' lives that you're observing are changing you throughout the show. It's truly one of my favorite roles to play, and I return to it as often as I can because it's wonderful for an actor to play that, and especially to go from one extreme to another. The real challenge is to make it believable."
Along with playing Scrooge in two national tours of "A Christmas Carol," Reed inhabited Dickens' famously embittered miser in Lyric's 1996 world premiere adaptation "A Country Christmas Carol" as well as for the first two seasons of the current production. After a tough 2020 - including losing his long-awaited starring role when Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre's planned production of "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder had to be canceled due to the pandemic - Reed said he is eager to revisit the classic Christmas tale.
"It's a great space, and I'd never been there before. ... When I went out there for the photo shoot, I was blown away. ... It's environmental. It's so exciting to be actually in a place that's, you know, a place as opposed to a set. So, I like the idea. It's going to be fun," Reed said. "It kind of takes your mind off of the fact that it is what it is for the reasons that it is. ... It becomes like an experience and not a compromise."
Stevenson, the producing artistic director of Guthrie's Pollard Theatre, has directed that company's beloved Dickensian adaptation "A Territorial Christmas Carol" many times over the years and occasionally stepped in as an understudy. But this is his first time building the character from scratch.
"The core of the character, I feel like, is the same. I don't feel like you lose much in that translation. It's tricky to get 25-plus years of muscle memory to not kick in. I hear cues from their show and instantly want to respond from our show. Unfortunately, it's like, 'nope, that's not the line there,'" Stevenson said, adding that The Pollard is creating a virtual version of "A Territorial Christmas Carol," which will be the Guthrie theater's first production since the pandemic.
"I think it's a really cool concept in terms of how are they going to produce this tradition that they've had that's been specifically built for the Plaza Theatre ... and then transport it outside to this living, breathing space."
Along with the outdoor setting and coronavirus protocols, Lyric's "A Christmas Carol" will be suited for 2020 in another key way: Stevenson, who is African American, will be playing the lead in a year that has seen Black Lives Matter protests around the globe.
"I also was immediately struck with the fact that they were saying, 'Not only are we going to do it differently, but we're also going to share different voices in this story that's been told a thousand times but rarely with a face that looks like mine," Stevenson said.
"I've already had people reach out to me and say, 'I'm coming to see your show because I've always loved 'Christmas Carol,' and I've never once seen a man of color play that role. And I can't wait.' So, what I was really grateful for - and what I'm always grateful for when people take notice of these kind of things - is not only did they find a way to bring my voice into a story, but they accepted that my voice is not the same as the other voices they've heard. I am not every traditional Scrooge. And it's not really of value - at least in my opinion - to try to force me into those confines, but to let my Scrooge reflect my background, my experience, my story, because then it reaches a whole different audience on a very different level."
Lyric Theatre's "A Christmas Carol"
When: Wednesday-Dec. 27.
Where: Harn Homestead, 1721 N Lincoln Blvd.
Tickets and information: www.LyricTheatreOKC.org.