It’s radio station KSTT Davenport’s annual radio presentation of “A Christmas Carol” in December 1950 and a snowstorm is about to ruin everything. If it can go wrong, it does as two former vaudeville stars and a frazzled stage manager stumble to finish the world’s most beloved holiday tale.
Written and directed by Mockingbird co-founder Tristan Tapscott and Doug Kutzli, the show will feature Jeremy Littlejohn, Bradley Robert Jensen and Taylor Lynn this weekend and next.
KSTT launched in 1946, originally produced from the sixth floor of the Hotel Davenport (the same building the Mockingbird occupies), and it ran at 1170 AM through 1993.
“I wanted to make it an actual radio station in Davenport at this time,” Tapscott said Tuesday night of the new show in his 17-month-old theater at 320 Main St.
It has a similar concept to the original holiday musical he wrote for Mockingbird last December. In “Deck the Halls,” a snowstorm hits and the star-studded cast of a 1953 radio show can’t make it into the studio. Those who are now trapped inside the studio — the janitor, writer, assistant station manager and the young frazzled producer — must take over and see that show does indeed go on.
This is far from Tapscott’s first brush with the 1843 classic story (which transforms the miserly, bitter old Ebenezer Scrooge into a much kinder, gentler man).
Tapscott has pitched his “Christmas Carol” musical to other theaters in the area, but to no avail yet. He wrote a new book for that show (with music and lyrics by Danny White), which premiered in 2012 at the former District Theatre in Rock Island.
“I did what I could do with that piece — it’s beautiful and I love it, but I’m not sure I should be the one that does it,” Tapscott said this week. “If another theater wants to do it, by all means. It’s one of those things, we did it and now we don’t need to do it.”
The new Mockingbird version “is not the play I set out to write, but it’s the play we’re doing,” he said. “Originally, I came up with the idea there would be two actors that would play everybody because everything went awry. But then we met Taylor, and Taylor is one of the funniest performers I think the Quad Cities has, and I absolutely adore working with her.”
“I wasn’t going to add a third person, but I can’t stop thinking about the three of you together,” Tapscott said. “My intuition was right on that, because they are fantastic together. What the three of them bring individually is so fantastic. Their personalities are so very different. What they bring to the table is so good and so funny.
“The flip side of that, though, as funny as they are, we end up having some very touching, heartfelt moments in the show, because — originally that tone I wasn’t sure what it was gonna be like,” he said. “But they manage to find this amazing thing, where they do this crazy farce, but it seamlessly transitions into this very heartfelt, dramatic moment at the end. It’s a testament to how good they are.”
“‘A Christmas Carol,’ you can’t just play it for laughs the entire time. You have to find those heartfelt moments,” Tapscott said.
Sharing the characters in radio play
Lynn does not play just the female characters, and all three play different versions of the same character at times. For example, two of them are Scrooge and two are Fred. They don’t change costumes and they hold scripts for parts of the show.
“The premise is, there’s supposed to a full cast coming in and most of them got caught in a snowstorm,” Jensen said. “We’re the people who are here.”
Littlejohn — who was in Tapscott’s original “Murder at Mistwell Manor” at Mockingbird this past spring — met him when Tapscott was in Circa ’21’s “Elf” in 2019, which Littlejohn directed. He played Santa in the previous “Elf” at Circa in 2017, and now works full-time as Circa production manager (since September 2021).
Jensen — who was in Tapscott’s last production of “The Rocky Horror Show” in October at The Speakeasy — started as full-time costume designer at Circa this June, moving from Chicago. He and Littlejohn are both veteran performers.
Littlejohn formerly ran a small theater (Myers Dinner Theatre) an hour west of Indianapolis. In 2019, he wrote a version of “A Christmas Carol” (with music director Travis Smith) done there. It ran at the same time as Circa’s “Elf.”
Jensen said he loves all his roles in theater — doing costumes and performing.
“I love this theater for incubating new works,” he said of making his Mockingbird debut. “Everyone knows ‘Christmas Carol,’ but I love that it’s a new ‘Christmas Carol’ and an interesting ‘Christmas Carol.’ That’s what got me excited about it.”
A new spin with comedy
The new show doesn’t satirize the beloved story, but it’s more of a farce, Jensen said.
“The comedy comes in the physical situation we’re in, not the story,” he said. “That means, when the physical things subside, that’s when we get the really heartfelt moments. When we all like take a minute to breathe, then these really lovely moments can come through.”
“When everything that’s going wrong does go wrong, it’s funny, but not because of the words being said, but because of the actions,” Jensen said.
“The trio performing the piece have a reverence for it, especially Jeremy’s character, so it’s we’re not making fun of it,” Tapscott said. The comedy comes in part, with Taylor’s character who doesn’t know the story, and doesn’t know what voices she should use.
“The comedy comes from the truth,” he said. “It’s kind of like ‘Play That Goes Wrong’…What was going on was chaos.”
Much of the 75-minute one-act show is not read directly with script in hand, Littlejohn said. All three actors play Ghost of Christmas Past at different points (Scrooge is visited by ghosts of Christmases past, present and future).
“We’ll start the scene, something goes wrong, and two people will have to leave and this person stays and has to do all three,” Littlejohn said, noting the parts become interchangeable among the trio, but will be clear to the audience who is playing whom.
“It’s not a three-person ‘Christmas Carol’; it’s three people doing a 12-person ‘Christmas Carol,'” Jensen said. “That’s where a lot of the physical humor comes in.”
While he hasn’t been in any other “Christmas Carol” versions, this one is Littlejohn’s sixth different production, with the previous five all musicals. He’s played Marley four times (in Portland, Ore., and in Indiana).
“This is my first Scrooge,” Littlejohn said, noting he’s also Marley here. Lynn plays the entire Cratchit family at one time.
They each try to do the same voice for the same role in the show. Lynn is a veteran of multiple character voices, having impressed in several roles in Mockingbird’s new “Their Town,” premiered in September 2022.
She was in a children’s version of “Christmas Carol” at Rock Island’s Center for Living Arts, playing Scrooge when she was 10 (one of six Scrooges).
“That, to this day, is all I know of the story,” Lynn said, noting she’s never seen any other “A Christmas Carol” on stage, film or TV.
“I know there’s a ‘Bah, humbug,’ there’s ‘God bless us everyone,'” she said. “It’s a clueless ‘Christmas Carol.'”
“That’s also a window to where the comedy comes from,” Littlejohn said. Lynn has seen the first 15 minutes of the Muppets’ “Christmas Carol,” which Jensen said is his favorite version.
“I do love a good mimic and good impression,” Lynn said. “I don’t think consistency is my strong suit in these characters. I begin Bob Cratchit as the British man he is, and he turns into an Italian mobster by the end of the show.”
She said the actors have been given a lot of liberties, though there’s not much improvising in the script. “We locked in some improvisational decisions,” Jensen said.
Juggling Santa and Scrooge
Lynn is also currently in the Circa ’21 children’s show, “Santa Claus: The Musical,” as the energetic Chirpy the Elf (running through Dec. 18 at the dinner theater, 1828 3rd Ave., Rock Island). It’s not hard for her to keep the script of both shows in her head.
“I think because these are two completely different characters, it’s easier,” she said. “This character is much less campy, I would say, than Chirpy is.”
“Here, it’s more realistic, aside from the funny voices and funny things that are happening,” Lynn said. “It’s still very rooted in the present. I think it’s easy to go back and forth between the two.”
It helps to have this show set in a radio station, with the actual script there to lean on, she said.
Jensen also loves the Mockingbird venue, cabaret style with tables and chairs (fewer than 40 seats).
“I love intimate spaces, small companies,” he said. “It’s a lot of things I’m passionate about in theater.”
Capturing the story’s heart
“Watching them tumble to the end, at the end of it, you’re so proud of them for doing it,” Tapscott said of the new show. “Through all the chaos, you managed to capture the heart of this story.”
“As someone who’s seen a lot of versions and loves ‘Christmas Carol,’ there aren’t a lot of scenes missing,” Jensen said. “The scenes might be shorter than other adaptations. All of the high points are there. Most of the scenes are there, but sometimes, the scenes are three lines long, instead of four pages.”
“In my mind, that’s important,” Littlejnohn said. “There are certain things everybody expects to hear in any version of ‘A Christmas Carol.’ It’s like doing ‘West Side Story’ without the Robbins choreography…It was important to maintain the integrity of that stuff, regardless of the silliness that’s going on.”
The Dickens has been adapted so many times, partly because it’s in the public domain and there are no licensing fees required to do new versions, he said.
“It’s like Shakespeare — pretty much anybody can write their own ‘Christmas Carol’ and do it for free,” Littlejohn said. “That’s what makes it easy for people to adapt. It’s also such a popular story at Christmas. The Goodman Theatre in Chicago has a production they do every year.”
“It’s just a universally beloved story,” he said. “Like all of your debates, I see it in memes every year, where people are talking about, what is the best version? Who’s the best Scrooge?”
”A Christmas Carol” opens Friday, Dec. 9 at 8 p.m. and performances will continue Dec. 10, 16 and 17 at 8, with doors opening at 7:30 p.m. The Mockingbird has a “Pay What You Can” model in an effort to make a night at the theater affordable for all.