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

Isaacs.

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

work."

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

leisurely circumstances.

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

Garden production.

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

choreography.

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

four years.

"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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