District celebrates a new 'Christmas Carol'

Posted Online: Dec. 12, 2012, 12:27 pm
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By Jonathan Turner, jturner@qconline.com
Tristan Tapscott and Danny White have worked on roughly 25 musicals together in the past three years, but this weekend they realize the culmination of their dream to present their own original musical, a version of "A Christmas Carol."

Mr. Tapscott -- 28-year-old co-founder of the former Harrison Hilltop Theatre and current artistic director of Rock Island's District Theatre -- and Mr. White -- 25-year-old music director for scores of their shows -- unveil a new spin on the 1843 Charles Dickens holiday classic, which has already been adapted into at least 11 musicals since 1974.

They include a 1988 "Christmas Carol" written by Augustana College alum and "Spider-Man" director Phil McKinley, which Mr. Tapscott acted in during Circa '21's run in 2007. A playhouse in Chatham, N.J., performs the show (which features Dickens as narrator) every other December.

"There are a lot of versions of 'A Christmas Carol,' but a lot of bad ones, though," Mr. Tapscott said this week. "Honestly, I can't remember one song from Phil's version."

He also said the music toLeslie Bricusse's 1992 "Scrooge: The Musical" (based on the 1970 film starring Albert Finney) is not memorable. Mr. Tapscott was in the Quad-City Music Guild production in 2001; Music Guild just did it again in 2011. Mr. Tapscott -- who's directing the District production -- wrote the book, which is a faithful adaptation of Dickens, much told from the perspective of a character looking back on the life ofcurmudgeonly miser Ebenezer Scrooge.

"There are a lot of very serious things that happen in 'A Christmas Carol.' It's pretty powerful," he said. "The reason there are so many versions of it, because it does work."

This one follows an older man writing down his memories of Scrooge, and flashes back to when Scrooge was young. A love duet, "Be Mine This Christmas," is Mr. Tapscott's favorite number. As we hear his stories, we travel back in time through a series of strange and magical journeys, where Scrooge discovers the true spirit of the holiday season.

Another "Carol" musical, from 1994, has songs by Alan Menken ("Newsies," "Little Shop of Horrors," "Beauty and the Beast"), which ran many years at Madison Square Garden and was made into a 2004 film. Mr. White purposely has avoided listening to any of the previous scores while writing his over the past year.

"I didn't want to subconsciously imitate anyone else's," he said of his contemporary songs. "I try to gauge people's tastes, and try to relate the songs to the audience."

"He's a genius," Mr. Tapscott said of his theatrical partner. "Some of them are so catchy. I listen to them at home, and they're very reminiscent of Frank Wildhorn, Stephen Schwartz. They're just so cool and accessible. It's very intelligent, very hummable -- a combination of Jerry Herman and Stephen Sondheim."

The pair's only prior attempts at original plays were in school -- Mr. White co-wrote a musical his senior year at Bettendorf High School, and Mr. Tapscott wrote some short comic plays while at Western Illinois University. Mr. White has written several pieces for choirs at Davenport North and Pleasant Valley high schools, and at University of Northern Iowa, which served him well when penning ensemble numbers for "Christmas Carol."

While Mr. Tapscott has championed newer works at his theaters, this will be just the second musical premiere since Harrison Hilltop started in 2008. He helped revise the book for "Tired American Dream," by a Peoria singer/songwriter, which debuted at Hilltop in early 2010.

"It's harder to sell new shows," Mr. Tapscott said, noting that the recent Melissa McBain play, "Altar Call" did better than other District straight plays this year. "Even 'A Christmas Carol,' it's a known work, but by two people the audience doesn't know what we're capable of."

Being on the ground floor of something new, though, is "really exhilarating," Mr. Tapscott said, and his favorite experience of all the shows he's done this year (including ones at Music Guild and Circa '21).

"It's a lot more meaningful. Only these 20 people (in the cast and crew) have heard this. Everything's going to hit (the audience) emotionally," he said. "Even something like 'Rent,' which is so emotional, but everyone knows the soundtrack. This is going to hit them in a fresh, new way that hasn't been done."

Mr. White spent September 2011 to this past August playing for a worldwide tour of the "Shrek" Broadway musical, and wrote a few of the "Christmas Carol" songs while on the road, e-mailing MP3s to Mr. Tapscott. The first draft of the script was done in late March, and has undergone many revisions.

This new musical stars Clinton Showboat regular Doug Kutzli as Old Man Scrooge, James Fairchild as Bob Cratchit, Dolores Sierra as Mrs. Cratchit, Regan Tucker as Tiny Tim, as well as Sara King, Joseph Maubach, Bryan Tank, Mark and Linda Ruebling, Don Hazen, Olivia Lyman, Wendy Czekalski, and Sara Kutzli each playing a number of colorful characters.

Choreography is by Kelly Lohrenz, and Lora Adams will serve as costumer. Mr. White (music director for the show) and Mr. Tapscott plan to make it an annual District tradition, and for the show to find life elsewhere in the future.

Mr. White has alsoperformed and/or music directed for Quad City Music Guild, Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse, Countryside Community Theatre, Green Room Theatre and The Speakeasy.

"It's really fulfilling, something entirely different being involved in a brand new work," Mr. Tapscott said. "You get to create the entire experience."

If you go

-- What: "A Christmas Carol" (new musical by Tristan Tapscott and Danny White).
-- When: Friday and Saturday (plus Dec. 20-22) at 8 p.m., and Sunday (and Dec. 23) at 2 p.m.
-- Where: The District Theatre, 1611 2nd Ave., Rock Island.
-- Tickets: $15, available at (309) 235-1654 or tristan@districttheatre.com.


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