Corrections or additions?
This article by Caroline Calogero was prepared for the December 8,
2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Quick Change Casting in ‘Carol’
Opportunity doesn’t always choose a convenient time to knock. Two
weeks into rehearsals for A Christmas Carol, Scrooge’s nephew Fred
went missing from McCarter Theatre. James Ludwig had played Fred for
the past four years. But when a chance to be on Broadway came up, he
left for this offer – one few actors could refuse.
Mara Isaacs, the theater’s producing director who oversees casting for
all plays, says, "We learned about it week before Thanksgiving."
Actors can back out of a role before rehearsals start but Isaacs
explains that only under the most dire of circumstances does an actor
leave a show once rehearsals have begun.
Generally, an actor needs to give four weeks notice to terminate a
contract and leave a production or else pay a fee to the theater. Both
were waived for Ludwig, who then joined the cast of Spamalot, a Monty
Python spoof, directed by Mike Nichols.
"He’s an actor we know and love well. He’s part of our McCarter
family. We recognized this as a real opportunity for him," says
Michael Unger, director of A Christmas Carol, seconds this opinion.
"Jimmy has done incredible work for us for the past four going on five
years," he says. He also acknowledged the new offer as "an opportunity
that can really move a career along."
But after the fond goodbyes, it was time for Unger to spring into
action with an emergency casting session. Since McCarter has a policy
of not having understudies whose cost can be prohibitive for a play
with a short run, the role was vacant.
Unger embraces the challenges that unexpected events can offer. " I
actually like it when things like this happen, because it keeps me on
my toes. If things didn’t change I couldn’t stay interested in my
Unger decided to include Nick Toren in the last minute auditions. They
had worked together once before in Indiana in a June, 2000 production
the comedy "Noises Off."
Ludwig gave notice on a Wednesday evening. Toren got a call from his
agent on Thursday afternoon. He auditioned on Friday and got the job
an hour later. On Saturday, rehearsals began with learning the dance
steps for a party scene. By the following Wednesday, Toren was up to
speed and attending regular rehearsals with the entire cast. "We put
him in pretty fast," says Unger, who has only high praise for Toren.
"He’s a very skilled actor. He brings a new interpretation the role."
Toren has a master’s degree in acting from the University of Missouri
in Kansas City, as well as some previous exposure to this
quintessential Christmas story. In the late 1990s he was young Scrooge
in a production of Christmas Carol at the Missouri Repertory Company.
For Toren, the required singing and dancing is the most challenging
part of his role as Nephew Fred and he has been doing some reading and
research to flesh out his character during his daily two-and-a-half
hour commute to Princeton from his home in the Washington Heights
neighborhood at the northern tip of Manhattan. "I love the Dickens
world," says Toren, who has spent at least one train ride into
Princeton thinking about what the off stage life of the character
might have been like.
Winning the role has wrought some changes in Loren’s holiday
preparations, suddenly limiting his shopping time to bits and pieces
of six days after commitments to rehearsals and performances are taken
into account. "I have to parse my time," he says, but he willingly
admits to being a habitual last minute shopper even under more
Taking on the part has also meant a change in holiday travel plans.
Toren will delay flying to Florida to visit with relatives until
Christmas morning, joining his recent bride, Elise, who will have left
New York two days earlier.
In A Christmas Carol Nephew Fred serves as Dickens’ mouthpiece, the
character who injects the author’s own attitude towards life and
perspective on the holiday. "Fred is a charming, winning character,
who is actually the embodiment of Charles Dickens," says Unger.
Unger should know. He has had lots of experience with A Christmas
Carol. He spent two years as assistant director for the Madison Square
Now in his seventh year at McCarter, he has directed the show there
since 1998. In 2000 he supervised the remounting of the production,
using the same script but new costumes, sets, lighting, and
Casting for A Christmas Carol starts in September and Unger estimates
that about half of the cast members return each year. Children in the
cast often return from year to year, changing roles as they grow both
physically and as actors.
There are some notable newcomers this year. Brad Heberless appears as
Young Scrouge, Don Mayo takes on Fezziwig/Old Joe, and Price Waldman
plays Bob Cratchit.
This year David Cromwell, an actor new to the role but not to
McCarter, plays Scrooge. Cromwell has appeared in McCarter’s "The
School for Scandal" and "Romeo and Juliet." A seasoned character
actor, he replaces Chris Jones, who held the role for the previous
"Change rejuvenates the show in a great way," says Unger, "The one
thing that’s great about live theatre is things keep changing. You’ve
got to think on your feet and come up with 50 different solutions to
20 new problems each day."
Happy with his work, he is not only firmly committed to welcoming the
new, but also fondly attached to the story line, a celebration of the
power of change that lives within us all. Unger is aware of how well
these pieces fit together.
"Christmas Carol is a show you can never tire of seeing because the
story is so brilliant," he says. He describes his job as "the best job
any director could have. It is completely sublime to work with people
who love the production so much on both sides of the proscenium."
The author’s masterpiece has become Unger’s annual touchstone for
measuring the achievement of potential. "Dickens was saying that the
tools for our redemption lie around us all the time, if we have the
wherewithal to pick them up and use them," he says. "The process of
looking inside yourself at what can be improved never ends."
– Caroline Calogero
A Christmas Carol McCarter Theater, through Friday,
December 24. Tickets: $31 to $45. Call 609-258-2787.
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