“A Christmas Carol,” 33rd annual adaptation by Jeffrey Sanzel
WHEN | WHERE 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday, Dec. 22 and 23, 3 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 24, with shows through Dec. 30 at Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson
INFO 631-928-9100, theatrethree.com
TICKETS $35 ($28 students 13 and older; $20 ages 5-12)
While it cannot be said that Theatre Three owns “A Christmas Carol” — the Charles Dickens classic, first published in 1843, is in the public domain — artistic director Jeffrey Sanzel’s stage adaptation is Long Island’s definitive “Carol.”
Not that it lacks competition. A dozen “Christmas Carol” interpretations — from musicals to mock versions — bring Scrooge to life all across the Island every December. But none are observing their 33rd season this year.
We asked Sanzel, who continually rewrites and reimagines his original adaptation, why he thinks the Theatre Three “Christmas Carol” has become such a tradition. He credits his theater colleagues and friends — several of whom have died since he first arrived at Theatre Three in 1989.
A 20-SOMETHING SCROOGE
Starting in 1990, at age 23, Sanzel has played Ebenezer Scrooge all but one year. “It’s a lot easier now in terms of makeup,” he said in an interview in his basement office at Theatre Three, looking the part with his salt-and-pepper muttonchops. “It used to take me two hours — latex eye bags and beard, shoe-polish gray makeup. Now I just let my hair grow starting around the Fourth of July. It only takes six minutes to get ready these days.”
But growing into the part took decades.
As a Jewish kid growing up in Rochester, Sanzel and his family did not observe Christmas other than as guests in friends’ homes. “We never had a Christmas tree,” he said.
But then, neither did Scrooge.
His first job after college was at John F. Kennedy Catholic High School in upstate Somers, where he directed his first “Christmas Carol.” Hired the next year to write and direct children’s shows in Port Jefferson, Sanzel made his Theatre Three “Christmas Carol” debut.
“It’s been my obsession ever since,” he said, sweeping his hand toward an array of “Carol” collectibles on bookshelves behind him. “All of a sudden, it wasn’t enough for me to have a copy of this video or that book. Whatever it was, I had to have it. It was my gateway drug to all things Dickens,” he added, reeling off his other favorite Dickens titles.
As Sanzel sees it, “Carol” is far more than a Christmas tale. “Ultimately, when we get older, we connect with regrets in life. This story is about it never being too late to own your past and make a better future.”
In recent years, his adaptation has let Scrooge’s Christmas morning redemption speak for itself. We see Scrooge interact with those he has hurt with his miserly humbug — more pantomime, less dialogue.
“There’s more joy to it now,” Sanzel said.
But also loss, he added with more than a trace of emotion. This is his first “Carol” since longtime music director Ellen Michelmore died this year. “We’ve lost too many good friends here,” starting in 2008 with Brent Erlanson, who first directed Sanzel as Scrooge. (This season’s final performance, Dec. 30, will be Sanzel’s 1,279th Scrooge.)
“Brent and Ellen bookend my growth and understanding of this show and this theater,” he said. Also this year, the Theatre Three family lost costumer Bonnie Vidal; Sue Anne Dennehy, who played Mrs. Fezziwig in “A Christmas Carol”; and Matt Paduano, who played another supporting role in the play, a Seeker of Mercy.
Paraphrasing Tiny Tim, God bless them every one.