Jack in rehearsal for "A Christmas Carol"

Jack Neary puts his own spin on 'A Christmas Carol'

Sunday, November 24, 2002

By Richard Duckett

Telegram & Gazette Staff

'A Christmas Carol'

When: Previews 8 p.m. Friday, and 4 and 8:30 p.m. Saturday; official opening, 2 p.m. Dec. 1; regular run, Dec. 5 through 29.

Where: Worcester Foothills Theatre Company, Worcester Common Outlets, Worcester.

How Much: $29 to $32, depending on performance. Box office, (508) 754-4018.

'A Christmas Carol” ... now, who the Dickens wrote that?

      Why, Jack Neary, of course.

      Well, that is the answer when it comes to who is the author of the new Worcester Foothills Theatre adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic that opens for previews Friday (the official opening is 2 p.m. next Sunday) and runs though Dec. 29.

      Neary, a Lowell-based playwright, director and actor, wasn't about to pen a total rewrite of the tale when Foothills artistic director Brad Kenney approached him about creating an adaptation. In other words, Scrooge won't take it with him, Bob Cratchit isn't on welfare, and Tiny Tim doesn't really die. Instead, in true Dickens spirit, Tim does say “God bless us, one and all.”

      Nevertheless, the adapter did want to put his own spin on matters,

      “It's a pretty traditional representation with a few things we haven't seen before,” Neary said during an interview before the start of a recent rehearsal.

      “I just tried to make it my own without risking making it too different from other versions.”

      When Michael Walker was artistic director of Foothills in 2000 he wrote his own theatrical adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” with the hope of having the Dickens story an annual holiday season happening at the theater.

      Kenney, who succeeded Walker last year, kept Walker's play for 2001, but added some more colorful background and musical flourishes.

      However, Kenney had already talked to Neary about a new version of the story for Foothills, and Neary was formally commissioned to write the piece this past summer.

      Neary is no stranger to Foothills. A one-act play competition put on by Foothills in 1985 helped give him the inspiration and impetus to write. “First Night,” about former parochial school classmates who rediscover each other one New Year's Eve after a lapse of many years, was one of the winners of “New Voices at the Family Table,” a competition designed to encourage new playwrights.

      Neary went on to have success with a full-length version of “First Night,” and has now written more than 30 plays, several which have been and still are performed commercially. Neary stayed on with Foothills for a couple of years after “First Night,” and directed “Biloxi Blues” there in 1987. But then there was a long break which ended in 2000 when Neary returned to Foothills to direct his own play, “Jerry Finnegan's Sister.”

      Since then, “I haven't left the joint,” Neary said.

      He has directed about half a dozen plays at Foothills, including “Dial 'M' for Murder,” which concludes its run at 2 p.m. today. Additionally, he's written several original plays for children that Foothills has staged.

      “I've really become part of the family, I hope. It's a nice place to work,” he said.

      But there is also life beyond Foothills. Another new play by Neary, “Beyond Belief,” will be produced early next year by the Lyric Stage in Boston.

      First things first, however.

      Neary's adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” includes music by another Foothills veteran, Jim Rice, and several major musical sequences. Since Foothills invested a lot of money on impressive looking Victorian costumes and sets for the previous two productions of “A Christmas Carol,” Neary's version was expected to utilize what was already in the theater's vaults. Other than that he had a free hand, but Dickens and reality helped shape the way of the play.

      Neary said he did not work with Walker's version. “You know what? I didn't read it at all. I decided it would be best to go back to the source.”

      So Neary began his first draft with Dickens' book in front of him.

      “I followed the track of the novel,” he said.

      “There are eight million adaptations of 'A Christmas Carol.' What you find out is that so many people are accustomed to it you can't stray too far if you want to be successful.”

      Nevertheless, in writing the speeches, “I took some of the things you expect, but I gave it some humor. A little bit of a spin. An extra edge so that people won't say 'Oh yeah, I'm back to the “Christmas Carol” I expect.' ”

      Neary is directing the Foothills show, something that helps in getting the length of the production “family friendly.” Anything longer than two hours would be unfriendly in his view.

      “If it comes in longer we will address it. You can make these decisions right in the rehearsal hall,” he said.

      The first day of rehearsals in the rehearsal hall was the first read-through of Neary's adaptation.

      “It was the first time I had ever heard the play read,” he said.

      The production calls for a large cast -- more than 40 actors, including three groups of 20 children who will appear in alternate shows.

      According to sources, when the first read-through had been completed, everyone burst into applause to praise Neary's work.

      His response was in character -- low key and modest. “The sound of laughter for the first time was kind of exciting,” he said.

      As for the applause?

      “That's always good. I think sometimes it's just polite, but this time it sounded genuine.”

      Neary said he has read Dickens' “A Christmas Carol” a number of times. “It's just great to be able to work with the material and experience the atmosphere the writing presents,” he said. So as he adapted the play, he said, he did feel Dickens' timeless message of compassion and spiritual renewal.

      Nevertheless, “More than the writing, the atmosphere doesn't really come to life until you get into the rehearsal room,” Neary observed.

      “Now it's in the mouths and minds of the actors it's really coming to life.”

      The proof of this Christmas pudding will remain in the eating. But Neary was sounding optimistic about his and Dickens' creation. “Four or five days into rehearsal, things are coming to life. Things are looking good,” he said. “So far, I'm happy.”