The Genesius Theater presents an original musical based on the Charles Dickens classic “A Christmas Carol” for 10 performances from December 10-19.
“A Berks County Christmas Carol” – set in today’s Reading and Berks County – was written and adapted by Genesius Artistic Director LJ Fecho. Genesius co-founder Michael O’Flaherty, Broadway and Regional Music Director, composed the music and lyrics.
The show has its roots in their first adaptation, “The Belsnickel Scrooge”, written as a Pennsylvania Dutch version of “A Christmas Carol” set in Reading during the Great Depression.
“I had been artistic director of the Genesius Theater for over a decade and was looking for an annual production of A Christmas Carol. Most of the versions I found had been featured in the reading area multiple times already and to be honest we were looking for something where we wouldn’t have to pay royalties, ”Fecho said.
Reading is at the heart of the Dutch country of Pennsylvania, so Fecho thought it would be unique to take this classic story and set it in Berks County.
“The Belsnickel is kind of Bad Santa etched into Germanic folklore, and from that character concept Michael and I created ‘The Belsnickel Scrooge’,” Fecho said.
In the following productions, the story takes place in different periods.
At the professional regional theater, Goodspeed Musicals, where the musical “Annie” debuted, “A Connecticut Christmas Carol” by Fecho and O’Flaherty was performed on the stage of the Goodspeed Opera House in 1925 and Scrooge ventured to the late 1800s.
The premise is that Mr. Goodspeed himself requested that legendary Connecticut and Sherlock Holmes actor (and hometown boy) William Gillette play Scrooge in a final production of A Christmas Carol before the Opera House closed for good. “said Fecho.
After extensive research, Fecho discovered that the great showman PT Barnum and Mark Twain not only lived in central Connecticut at one time, but knew each other and were friends with William Gillette as well.
“These historical figures created the very basis for the ghosts that visit Scrooge on this fateful Christmas Eve.”
The historical spirits of this production were J. P Morgan (Jacob Marley), Benedict Arnold (past), PT Barnum (present) and Mark Twain (future).
“At Goodspeed, Scrooge was played by Robert Cuccioli, the original ‘Jekyll & Hyde’ from Broadway, and production ran for three sold-out holiday seasons before COVID!” said Fecho.
In 2019, Hunter Foster, director of Genesius, requested a custom show for the Redhouse Performing Arts Center in Syracuse, NY, where he was artistic director. For “A Syracuse Christmas Carol”, the story is set in 1999, and Scrooge shows his past life in the 1940s.
Fred Grandy of “The Love Boat” TV celebrity played Scrooge. The historical figures were a mix of local heroes of Syracuse: L. Frank Baum, who wrote “The Wizard of Oz” (Present) and Rod Serling of “The Twilight Zone” (Past).
“It was also a sold-out success, but unfortunately COVID reared its ugly head two months later and we were only able to put on the show for one season,” Fecho said.
Today, the Genesius Theater’s upcoming production of “A Berks County Christmas Carol” – featuring historic and iconic Berks County figures – takes place in present-day Reading town center and Scrooge looks back to his early years in Berks County in the 1950s.
“Michael and I are extremely grateful to the Genesius Theater for supporting us and launching our great journey of writing musicals,” said Fecho. “It’s exciting to have this opportunity for ‘The Belsnickel Scrooge’ to come full circle with today’s presentation of ‘A Berks County Christmas Carol’.”
Looking ahead, O’Flaherty and Fecho are optimistic that this Christmas story will become a tradition in many theaters across the country and possibly around the world.
Cast of “A Berks County Christmas Carol”
The musical features a local cast of around 30 adults, teens, tweens and children.
Genesius veteran Christopher Sperat plays the Three Spirits who visit Scrooge, appearing as local historical figures whose identities have been kept under wraps as an element of surprise to the public.
Another Genesius veteran, Kevin Cooper, stars as Scrooge’s dead and evil partner, traditionally known as Jacob Marley, as an infamous Reading Racketeer from the corrupt 50s and 60s. Cooper is also the musical director and conductor of the show.
Other key cast members include Daniel Graf as Bob Cratichit, Jennifer Parker Scott as Martha Cratchit, Ellen Rochlin as Kathy Cratchit, Harrison Brumbaugh as Tiny Tim Cratchit, Bo Irwin as role of young Ebenezer Scrooge, Cecilia Cooper as Isabel, fiancee of young Ebenezer, Dara Himes as Jen, sister of young Scrooge, James Haggerty as Harry, nephew of Scrooge and Jonathan Erkert as several key roles throughout the musical.
The orchestrations are by Dan DeLange. The production is directed and produced by Fecho.
Dan Pardo is a music consultant, Sophie Xiong is the choreographer of the show. Set design by Randall Hauk, lighting design by Zack Spadaccia, sound design by Albert Garcia, and costume design by Cathy Miller. The musical is directed by Becka Malanios and Sara Huard.
From Genesius to Broadway and back
In 1971, O’Flaherty, along with the late Jane Simmon Miller, co-founded Genesius, a community theater in Reading.
“Michael was in his twenties and barely 13 when I found my way to this very special theater which opened its arms to young people, encouraging them to explore all facets of musical theater. It was the start of a long-standing friendship, ”said Fecho.
After leaving Genesius in the late 1970s and moving to New York City, O’Flaherty worked at Playwrights Horizons, The Whole Theater, The Acting Company, The Chelsea Theater Center, The Brooklyn Academy of Music, The Royal Alexandra Theater in Toronto, Ford’s Theater in Washington DC, the Smithsonian Institution and the Kennedy Center.
He was Music Director and Cabaret Director of the famous Williamstown Theater Festival in Massachusetts for 11 seasons, working with celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Christopher Reeve, Celeste Holm, Frank Langella, Richard Dreyfuss and Joanne Woodward.
On Broadway, he conducted Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “By Jeeves” and “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and composed the music for Nikos Psacharopoulos’ production “A Streetcar Named Desire”.
Off-Broadway, he was musical supervisor, arranger and performer of Carol Hall’s “To Whom It May Concern”, directed by legendary Hollywood Golden Age actress Geraldine Fitzgerald.
After 28 years as Resident Music Director of the Goodspeed Opera House, where he has conducted over 100 musicals, O’Flaherty recently retired and returns to the Genesius stage as Ebenezer Scrooge in the upcoming production of ” A Berks County Christmas Carol “.
Show dates and tickets
The 2021-2022 Genesius season is sponsored by Sweet Street Desserts and the show is sponsored by the Wyomissing Foundation. Thanks to a grant from the Wyomissing Foundation, Genesius is offering 250 free tickets to frontline workers. To book tickets, send an email to [email protected] and provide the phone number and desired show dates and times.
Rated G, the family show has some scary moments and may not be ideal for very young children. Fog, haze, strobe lights and loud sound effects are part of the production.
Genesius presents a user-friendly sensory production on December 19 at 10 a.m. in association with The Autism Society of Berks County. Tickets can be purchased from the Autism Society. This performance is developed by Emily Lynch and Kelly Snyder.
Shows from December 10 to 19, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $ 17.50 to $ 32.50. For tickets, more information and the show’s online poster, visit www.genesiusdifference.org.
Spectators must wear a mask. The cast and crew will not be wearing masks, but all indoor Genesius volunteers will.
Genesius, a non-profit theater, is located at 153 N. 10th St., Reading, and is accessible. Limited free parking is available next to the theater. For more information, call 610-371-8151.