Reading’s Genesius Theatre presents “A Berks County Christmas Carol,” an adaptation of the timeless Charles Dickens story with a local twist, opening on December 10.
It is an original musical with music and lyrics by Michael O’Flaherty (who also stars as Ebenezer Scrooge) and book by L.J. Fecho (who directs the production). Fecho and O’Flaherty are both experienced actors and theater personnel. O’Flaherty co-founded the Genesius Theatre in 1971 and was its first Artistic Director. Fecho is the current Artistic Director.
The musical features a large cast and crew, and appearances by famous faces from Berks County past and present. Jacob Marley is now Abe Minker (played by Kevin Cooper), the infamous racketeer of Reading’s golden age of corruption in the 1950s and 60s.
“I don’t want to divulge who they are,” Fecho said, “because we want audiences to be surprised.”
“A Berks County Christmas Carol” has its origins in “The Belsnickel Scrooge,” a “Christmas Carol” adaptation created by Fecho and O’Flaherty and set in Depression-era Reading.
The Ghosts of Christmas and the Cratchit family speak with Pennsylvania Dutch accents. Fecho developed the idea after reading “Pennsylvania Dutch Night Before Christmas,” a children’s book written by Chet Williamson and illustrated by James Rice.
“I love the story of Dickens’ holiday classic,” Fecho said, “and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t be fun to take that story and rip it from the pages of Merry Old England and set it down in PA Dutch country.”
Belsnickel, a Pennsylvania Dutch folkloric character who gives Christmas gifts to good children and whippings to bad ones, reminded Fecho of Scrooge. He calls the two characters “bad Santas.” “The Belsnickel Scrooge” played at Genesius during the 2007, 2008 and 2009 holiday seasons.
“The first year we presented the show, the rehearsal period was a nightmare,” Fecho recalled, “not unlike what Scrooge was really going through in the story. We literally had to postpone opening night to the next night, so we had something presentable to offer the audience.”
Due to constant rewrites, the actor playing Scrooge had his lines fed to him through an earpiece.
“Insane!” Fecho remembered. “Thankfully, from that point forward the show improved and the audiences grew. We decided in 2021 that the PA Dutch concept doesn’t fly as much as it did even just 12 years ago. The area is changing.”
Years later, Fecho and O’Flaherty brought “The Belsnickel Scrooge” to Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut. The change in location also resulted in a change in characters. The four ghosts who visit Scrooge became Mark Twain, J.P. Morgan, P.T. Barnum and actor William Gillette, who all lived in Connecticut contemporaneously. The reaction was positive, and retelling the classic holiday fable with Berks historical figures seemed like a no-brainer. Still, the general idea stays the same.
“You root for Scrooge,” Fecho said. “You want Scrooge to find the light, and when he does it’s a big payoff. Everyone knows the story inside and out, but they still wait for that big payoff! It’s kind of remarkable. People still want to believe that good beats evil and that we are all in this together.”
Tickets and performance times can be found at genesiusdifference.org. Free tickets are available to frontline workers. Through a grant from the Wyomissing Foundation, Genesius is giving away 250 tickets over the 10 performances to frontline workers. To reserve these tickets contact GenesiusXmasCarol@gmail.com, and include your phone number and possible dates/times you would like to attend the show and a Genesius representative will get back to you.